A Different Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

Here we go again…..just one day left until you start, right? Whatever thing you are doing that you don’t like about yourself (or whatever thing you think you should be doing to make yourself better), this is the time to commit to change. Overnight, from the time you go to sleep on December 31st to the minute you wake up on January 1st, your life will be different. Because you made a “New Year’s Resolution” it will be so. If only it could be that easy, that simple.

I don’t mean to be negative, and I think it is great to think positively because the way you think definitely affects your actions, and what you choose to do in the moment. If you think you can’t then you won’t even try, whereas when you think you can you are more likely to be successful. Unfortunately, it is not that easy, not that simple and you know that because you probably have done it before. As I am sure I posted in the past when talking about resolutions, motivation to change something typically revolves around not liking the way you look or the way you feel. And to be clear, the way you “feel” has as much to do with what you do physically (what you eat, drink, how much you move, sleep, etc) as well as how you feel emotionally about where you are in your life (your relationships, job, lifestyle, stress level etc). Thinking about changing things is a great thing.

But if you think you are going to change without doing the research work first, chances are you might repeat your typical cycle. In my work and in my life I have noticed that people (including myself) repeat patterns. People repeat patterns of choosing the same type of relationship, even if it is toxic, over and over. They may resolve to stop working 80 hours a week yet choose a new job where that is exactly what they have to do. Since I am not a relationship or career expert I won’t say much about this. It is just a reminder that it is not just unhealthy eating and yo yo dieting that are hard ruts to get out of.

One of the most common and typical New Year’s Resolution cycles, however, involves behaviors around eating and exercise. People resolve to “stop eating junk food” or “exercise every day” or “lose 10 pounds”, etc. I will contribute my 2 cents on this because I may have some insight that may help you look at things a bit differently, and that may help you accomplish your goals, whatever they may be. First, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. If you have made a resolution to diet in the past (in order to lose weight), did you lose the weight you wanted but then gained it back?
  2. If you have ever made a resolution to exercise more, were you able to maintain what you originally planned on doing for the entire year?
  3. If you have resolved to drink less alcohol (or soda, or coffee) in the past, were you able to maintain your goal?
  4. If you committed to decreasing eating fast food last year, where are you at as we speak?
  5. If your goal was to cook healthier meals, how many healthy meals did you cook this week so far?

There are some individuals who are able to make a goal and stick to it, but most of us struggle. For most of us our behaviors and what we end up eating and drinking, as well as how much we exercise are very complicated ordeals. That is because we human beings are quite complicated creatures. We do what we do for many reasons, stemming back from our memories, interactions, experiences, knowledge, our genetics and most importantly, what we have practiced. What makes it even more complicated is that our brain stores everything, remembers everything (even if you don’t) and each part of the brain communicates with the other parts. What is stored in our complicated brains, and what it communicates to our conscious thinking affects our behavior. Our behavior then eventually creates pathways that our brain ends up remembering. So much so that we don’t even have to think, we just act.

Have you ever driven home from work and wondered how you got there? You don’t remember taking your exit, you don’t remember sitting at the light, you just have arrived. That is because you repeated that behavior so many times, your brain does its own thing and gets you home. It is automatic. Well, the same thing happens with eating and drinking. I remember years ago I would pass a Dunkin Donuts on my way to work every day. I used to love their hazelnut coffee and I would go through the drive-thru and get one. I did this almost every day, even though I never drank the entire coffee, it just became so satisfying to get it. Eventually, I could not drive by that darn Dunkin Donuts without pulling in! Then one day I decided to start tracking my expenses for a month. I just could not understand where my money was going. Long story short, it turned out I was spending a good 40 dollars a month (translate to almost 500 a year) on coffee that I was not even finishing! I started to bring my own. It was hard! My brain was already mapped out to go that way, not drive by…it felt wierd! And I wasn’t happy. As it turns out, eating and drinking actually increases our happy chemicals in our brains (dopamine), so much so that we just want (and need) to repeat the very behavior that makes us happy (but typically has a negative consequence, for me, draining my budget).

It gets even more complicated. We know with alcohol, for example,our brains eventually change over time to actually need to drink. At first, having that cocktail or glass of wine after work just may relax you. But, if repeated over time, the brain starts to make you crave/need that alcohol at that certain time because your own “happy” chemicals are not enough. Your habit has begun, and it is not easy to change. We do know that when you pair drinking (or eating) with a specific environment or activity, that environment or activity will eventually become a “trigger”or a cue to eat (or drink). You become a robot. A robot eating or drinking just because you have repeated the behavior in the same place at the same time.

To complicate matters further, enter your emotions into play. Do you eat when you are stressed? Bored? Upset? Angry? Tired? If you repeatedly use eating or drinking to numb feelings (or just to feel better, since both of these things do increase your happy chemicals), chances are over time these feelings become the trigger. It feels almost automatic, that you just can’t stop. But, happy as ice cream or a glass of wine seems to make you, now your feelings ON TOP OF your environment become just one more trigger. It is much more complicated than this of course. But you get the message.

Oh wait, there is more. It is called homeostatic hunger. That is when your very own body knows it needs to eat or drink something. Dehydrated? You get thirsty. On a low carb diet? You crave sweets. Didn’t eat enough at lunch time? You need a snack. Yes, “listen to your body” as I always say…..but, when you add in the habits and repetitive messaging to the brain, the automatic responses you taught yourself and practiced to perfection, well, it is not so easy to just listen, is it?

The bottom line is, in order to make the healthy changes you want to make, you need to understand and accept the following:

  1. Your behaviors may have become “automatic” because the brain pathways you created through repeated practice remain, even when you truly want to change.
  2. You usually can change your brain to allow you to do what you really want to do (healthier habits) through the same repetitive practice that got you where you are. Only this time you will be consciously practicing the healthier behavior. It won’t feel right at first (driving by the Dunkin Donuts instead of pulling in) but it gets easier over time.
  3. It takes time and reflection to truly figure out your triggers. If you skip this step I might predict next year at this time you will be in the same place.
  4. It is helpful to think of “adding in” a healthy behavior verses “eliminating” an unhealthy behavior. For example, to just expect yourself to totally stop drinking 2 glasses of soda with your lunch is hard. Adding in 2 glasses of lemon water in place of the soda helps.

Let’s take an example of what this may look like in your real life. I have heard countless people complain about not being able to control themselves when it comes to sweets. They can’t have cookies in the house because they will eat them all. They can’t stop. What is going on here? Are some people simply “addicted” to sweets? As it turns out, researchers have been looking into the concept of “food addiction” for many years, and although the topic remains somewhat controversial, there is evidence that high fat and high sugar foods (such as cookies) involve “brain-reward” changes. In other words, they make us feel good, and can be just as rewarding to our brains as a glass of wine. The reality though, is that although most of us feel happy from eating a sweet dessert, not everyone feels compelled to eat the whole thing. (Food addiction is such and interesting topic, I hope to write on that topic next time).

This is where your “research” comes in. Remember, everything you did in the past regarding food and eating has been stored in your brain. The automatic pathways are there. So, if you were rewarded with sweets when you were a kid, that is there. Or, if you had a parent who restricted sweets (and you consequently had to sneak that cookie), that memory is still there. If you had a parent who cared about body size and dieted all the time, that message is also there. If YOU dieted in the past, lost and regained weight, put yourself in “diet jail” (eat this, don’t eat that) for any length of time, well that is stored in there too. And, if you have used food or have binged on food in the past (when you have gone off your diet on a Friday only to resume it on Monday, the typical dieter’s pattern) you can be sure that pattern is stored in there too. If you take the time to reflect on all you have been through when it comes to food and eating as well as exercise you will have a greater appreciation of why it isn’t so simple.

Once you do your reflecting on where you are, hopefully you can start to identify your “triggers”. It takes time for your brain to adapt to a new way of behaving, so in the meantime, it is important to adapt your environment to set yourself up for success. If you have a goal of cooking healthier meals instead of eating out, your fridge needs to have the food you need to actually cook! That means making a menu, a grocery list and planning when you are going to go shopping. If at this time you realize you can’t have just one (cookie, chip, ice cream, whatever) figuring out a way to “practice” may be helpful. For example, buy a small package of cookies or an individual bag of chips to have with a meal or as a snack. Pay attention to every bite and truly try to enjoy it. Notice the thoughts that pop up in your head. Are they negative, judgemental? Catch these thoughts and change them, even if you don’t believe it (fake it till you make it). “It is healthy and normal to have a serving of chips, it won’t affect me, this is OK “.

Sometimes, keeping a record is helpful. For example, if you think you might eat or drink because of emotional reasons, you may want to document what is going on, even for just a week. You can write down what you are feeling and thinking, what time you are eating, what and about how much you are eating, how hungry (or not hungry) you are, how full you feel, where you are, who is with you, etc. When you look back on this record you may learn something about yourself. Once you identify patterns, you might be able to name some of your “triggers”. Do you notice yourself eating when you are not hungry after an argument with your boss? Or maybe you notice you tend to get too full at dinner, but that you don’t eat much during the day. The trigger in this case is just allowing yourself to get overly hungry! Only when you identify these triggers can you come up with some strategies to move in a healthier direction.

So, when you start the New Year wanting to incorporate some healthier eating behaviors, you will surely encounter some challenging situations. When you do, how can you respond and be successful? Remember, the natural thing is to resort to old ways of behaving because those pathways are already there and automatic. Being aware of them is the first step. Accepting the fact that change is complicated is important. Respecting the complexity of how our lifestyle evolved to be what it is, well that is critical. Remember the saying “practice makes perfect”? That is because each time you do something differently, and repeat it, over and over, your brain follows. Eventually, you make brand new pathways that become automatic. Before you know it, it is easier and easier to have just 3 cookies instead of the entire plate. Over time, going out for a walk after work instead of plopping on the couch feels more natural (and eventually you will crave that walk instead of the couch). Or, for those who struggle with restricting or over exercising, starting to eat regular meals at first is not easy, but over time and with practice, it becomes more automatic. Limiting exercise also starts to feel more normal (note:always follow the advice of your doctor, therapist and dietitian as they know your specific situation and will safely guide you).

Finally, I totally understand there is so much more to say about healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle. Exploring the concept of “triggers” as well as developing strategies for dealing with them can be a whole new post. And, there are countless resources on strategies to eat healthy, nutrition, cooking, etc. which we have not even touched upon. Educating yourself is important, as long as you avoid the “perfect eating” trap. Be sure to stick to evidenced-based resources such as:




But all the knowledge in the world can’t undo what your brain knows all too well. How to make you do what you do. Only you can do that. Through reflection and honesty and practice. It takes lots of work. Picking the “right diet” is not the answer. It is not that simple.

And remember, if for some reason you truly run into trouble, or can’t change a habit that is harming your health (physically or psychologically), get help. You deserve it.

Here’s to a happier, healthier new year!!!! Wishing you peace and love, especially within yourself.

New Year’s Resolutions and Weight: Tips for Success (if you really gotta do this)

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It takes a lot of tries to finally grasp that rubber ducky!

I don’t do them. Making  New Year’s Resolutions that is. I don’t like setting myself up for failure. That doesn’t mean I don’t reflect on things at the end of the year….. it just may take me more than the month of January to figure things out. But, tonight is New Year’s Eve and having listened to the “new year’s resolution” chatter already, I am pretty confident there will be lots of people living it up like there’s no tomorrow (as my mom likes to say) until New Year’s Day is over and it’s time to face the music.

Yes, people make resolutions about all kinds of behaviors they don’t like about themselves, usually focused on some health behavior change. Things like quitting smoking (yay), exercising more, eating healthier, losing weight. Sometimes people vow to spend less, save more, get a new job, go back to school, get organized, experience new things, etc. Of course, most new year’s resolutions I tend to hear about are related to wanting to change one’s body. You know, lose weight. It’s not just me, if you google “New Year Resolutions” there are lots of top-10 lists, and right at the top of most of them is “lose weight”.

I am not a fan of dieting and here’s why: As my friends and family know, I have spent much of my career trying to help people focus on health instead of dieting and weight loss. They are surely tired of me saying “listen to your body”, and they joke about it (especially my husband who loves to tell me his body is telling him to eat another cookie). What most of them will never truly understand is the struggle, pain, loss and often tragedy of those struggling with disordered eating. I have been forever affected by the lives I was blessed to share with some true heroes. Young and old men and women, girls and boys, mothers and daughters, who have fought this terrible disease and manage to keep going, and even to thrive despite its grip on their lives. I can’t forget them. And so, that is why when people tell me they want to lose weight, I struggle. Also, I believe in the “Health at Every Size” philosophy, and that someone’s body size, BMI or weight is absolutely no indicator of health despite our obsession with BMI and numbers. However, there are individuals who have been in their natural weight ranges most of their lives but then, due to some gradual but detrimental changes in their lifestyles gain weight that is NOT normal for them….and may affect their health because of that reason, NOT because of the number on the scale. I totally understand why those people would want to lose weight, and although reverting back to their original lifestyles that promoted their normal weight sounds easy, it is not.

So, despite my passion to prevent eating issues, I realize I really should not discount the feelings of others. If there is something that is important to you and you are determined to do it, it is not fun to hear someone else tell you it is a dumb thing to do. Plus, it doesn’t change things. It really doesn’t help.  People are going to diet, period. I have learned to keep my mouth (kind of) shut and let others learn on their own what works for them. Inevitably, life goes on. People lose weight, they may regain it over time (we all know people who say “such and such diet works! I lost 30 pounds on it last year!”). So they do it again, it is comfortable for them. Maybe some people (the lucky ones who don’t fall into a disordered eating pattern) may learn something good (like how to make healthier meals, smarter ways to shop, meal prep ideas, etc).  Do I wish they would avoid giving the diet industry even one more penny…..yes. But that is because I believe the diet industry all too often seems to prey on the insecurity and desperation of people striving to lose weight, and that bothers me. They make money off of the reality that most people are repeat customers due to the simple fact that by design, you start and then end the diet. Unless someone really becomes self-aware and uses the lessons learned in the right way, letting go of the rest of the ridiculousness all too often results in weight regain. For example, counting points (or calories, or carbs) for life just is not normal eating and not possible. I have NEVER seen someone adopt that as a forever lifestyle. So, you pay again. And again. And again. But back to what I said initially, I am not going to try to talk anyone out of anything. Not any diet (unless I know for a fact it is dangerous to that person), not any lifestyle, not any food. I am not an expert on anyone’s life, they are, so they know what is best for them, and they need to travel and learn in their own way, even if it takes a few rounds of it. What I do want to do, however is share what I hope might prevent disordered eating and what might truly help someone adopt a healthier way of looking at dieting, food and weight.

So, if you are one of those people with “lose weight” at the top of your New Year’s Resolution list, here are my tips for you:

  1.  Reflect on your “weight and lifestyle” history. Was there a time in your adult life that your weight was settled in a 5-10 pound range for several years and you didn’t have to pay attention to it? What was your lifestyle like? Sometimes we have even minor changes in lifestyle that eventually affect our health (or weight) such as moving from the city and walking everywhere to moving to the country and driving everywhere. Over time, the decrease in physical activity has an affect on our body. With that said, excessive physical activity isn’t exactly a doable lifestyle either. I have heard people say “in college I only weighed such and such, I want to be that weight again”. Well, in college, if you were on the track team and ran 70 miles a week, or maybe walked across campus day and night, or danced your butt off every weekend, that is not typical! You were probably at an unnatural low weight for you as an adult, and your present weight is more normal and healthy. Instead of thinking you should go back in time and be a certain weight, consider reflecting on your current activity level. Do you get an hour of joyful movement daily? Maybe that should be a focus instead of that number on the scale. So turn up that dance music, join the Y, find a walking buddy, or whatever you need to do to incorporate healthy movement into your life. Or, did your weight always fluctuate? Were you always on a diet, always trying to lose weight? Have you suffered from disordered eating such as binge eating alternating with trying to starve yourself and skip meals? If you have had extreme fluctuations in eating over many years and never got help, I would suggest an evaluation by a therapist who specializes in eating issues (ask your doctor for a recommendation). If, however, you have slipped into some unhealthy lifestyle and/or eating patterns such as eating out every day, drinking lots of soda or alcohol, watching 8 hours of TV a day, staying up way too late then maybe your weight really has been affected by these unhealthy changes and they are worth working on. And yes, although I would be happy because changing these behaviors will make you healthier, they may also help you be at your healthier weight, too (your goal). Bottom line: your weight and dieting history affect everything. Don’t ignore it and don’t compare yourself to others.
  2.  Reconsider your goals. If your diet plan or program makes any suggestions regarding how much weight you should lose (per week or whatever), I would suggest ignoring that. If you think your unique, individual body and metabolism is going to cooperate with anything but its own reality, think again. You will be setting yourself up for disappointment. You will not feel successful if you set yourself up with expectations involving numbers. Our bodies just don’t work that way. Fluid shifts may result in changes in the number on the scale which have absolutely nothing to do with what is happening regarding body composition (muscle vs fat vs water), so why judge yourself on it? The funniest story I can think of is when one of my patients came in after having ice cream the night before, thinking her weight was going to be up. Instead, it was down. “Oh wow, I didn’t know ice cream makes you lose weight!” she said….I had to laugh. The lesson is that your weight is going to fluctuate no matter what. Instead of focusing too much on that, could you consider looking at all the good things you have been accomplishing to be healthier?  Have you been eating more fruits and vegetables? Drinking more water, less alcohol and sugary drinks? Walking more? Sleeping better? Maybe instead of feeling bad because you did not lose weight, stop and think about all the healthy changes you have made. Find something positive. Then move on.
  3.  When your body talks, LISTEN. I was going to word this one “Beware of all-or-nothing thinking”. All too often when people start weight loss regimens they are “on the diet”. This implies something really powerful which many do not understand when they undertake this endeavor. It can be a set-up if you are not careful. I have used the term “diet jail” before. This analogy is pretty easy to understand, and worth repeating. When you start a diet it psychologically places you in “jail” where all the acceptable foods exist. The lean meats, fruits, vegetables and healthy “good” meals that you are going to restrict yourself to are available, and you are expected to eat a certain way as long as you are in there and until you lose the desired amount of weight. Outside of this self-imposed jail is the “bad” food. This is where the chips, ice cream, cookies, chicken wings or whatever else you are trying to avoid are. Unfortunately (or fortunately) our bodies know better than we do regarding what we are missing (again, I’ve talked about this but worth repeating). Since most diets are deprived of adequate fats and carbohydrates, if too restrictive our regulatory systems may send signals to our brains to fix it. This means you just may crave a cookie. Or chocolate. Or chicken wings. Since these are not in the jail (on the diet) where you planned to live for awhile, what is a dieter supposed to do? Often, since it is almost impossible to ignore body signals (have you ever had to REALLY pee on a road trip??) you give in. You break out of jail (or pull over on the highway). That is ok. What is not good is the way you react to this experience. Here is where you can make a change. If like most people, when you do what your regulatory system demands (eat the cookie, satisfy your body’s need for carbohydrates to function properly) you may be inclined to binge or overeat. It is natural to want to hoard something when you are deprived of it. But you don’t live on a deserted island, you are not a contestant on survivor and you really can get a cookie tomorrow if you wanted. Do you feel guilty because you ate the cookie? Guessing the answer for most dieters is “yes”. Well, instead of just accepting your self-judgment, why not try to give yourself some credit for being so intuitive and listening to what your body is trying to tell you? Can you try to eat just the amount of whatever it is to make that nagging thought (need) go away? The reality is that a few cookies (5 chocolate kisses probably satisfies a true chocolate craving) is no big deal. Binge eating IS a big deal because of the way it tends to make people feel (both physically and emotionally). Even then, it truly is a learning experience (“wow, this is harder for me than I thought. Maybe I need to research strategies to prevent this next time). The bottom line, if you are a dieter, this is likely to happen depending on the diet. If you can learn to eat healthier yet still fit in the foods you crave this is a behavior you can take with you for life, long after the diet ends. (Note: this does not apply to those suffering from Binge Eating Disorder, where professional help is needed; this advice is meant for the typical dieter who may overeat just because they broke out of diet jail).
  4.  Don’t give specific foods magical powers. Here’s a news flash: all food are equal when it comes to weight gain. I am not talking “big picture” for surely, if you eat a lopsided diet your appetite may be affected (no protein or no fat or no carbohydrates may affect your appetite and what you crave over time). I am talking day to day, meal to meal, snack to snack differences in food choice. Think of the ice cream girl. The ice cream did not make her lose weight, and if she gained weight it would not have been because of the ice cream. If your diet calls for only fruit for snacks for example, and you have that day when you just can’t look at another apple, having that muffin truly won’t make a difference. Again, it’s that darn smart body wisdom again, telling you what you need. So don’t give food that power. It doesn’t have it. Eating kale everyday or drinking some magic juice also won’t do anything magical. It won’t negate poor sleep or stress or smoking or a sedentary lifestyle. But if you like kale, eat kale : D
  5.  If there is a magic bullet, it is this.  Sleep. If you are staying up past 11 pm or midnight chances are you are going to affect your appetite in ways that won’t make you happy if you are a dieter.  According to one study, ” physiologic evidence suggests short sleep may influence weight gain through effects on appetite, physical activity and/or thermoregulation”- see Sleep Study . In other words, getting less than 6 hours of sleep may put you at risk for feeling hungrier, being too tired to be active and/or affect your metabolism in ways that may promote weight gain that is not normal for you. Clues you may not be getting enough sleep: needing a long nap on a regular basis. Naps longer than 20 minutes or so tend to interfere with falling asleep at night, and so the cycle begins. Do me a favor, do an experiment for a week and don’t nap, don’t take electronics to bed, turn off the TV, avoid caffeinated drinks after noon, avoid alcohol and try to get to bed by 10 pm (if you can). See how you feel.
  6.  Learn Learn Learn. If you look at your “diet” solely as a means to lose weight and change the way you look you are bound to be back where you started eventually. Instead, this may be an opportunity to learn so much about yourself. You may be forced for the first time to go grocery shopping in different isles. You probably have to cook more, and this is a good thing. Most healthy minded people I know have learned to enjoy cooking because in order to eat something both tasty and healthy, you really do need some skills. It does not have to be difficult, the microwave is fine. I know people who may have gone on and off diets but always have a few recipes they kept because they were really good. I suggest keeping a collection of dishes you have tried, maybe fast lunches or crock pot meals. No need to ditch the yummy healthy recipes you will find on this journey you have chosen. I tend to jot things down when I find a recipe I end up loving. I use google a lot! For example “Healthy Breakfast Casserole” gave me my favorite fast make-ahead breakfast for when I have company. “Best Ever Quinoa Sliders” and “Best Ever Gumbo” gave me other favorites. It really can be fun! I jot them down and stuff them in my recipe box (hopefully, you are more organized than I am). But healthy cooking is one thing to learn and keep, learning about yourself is the other great thing. Some changes come easy (maybe you discover yoga and love it). Some changes seem impossible. You may learn you struggle with one thing or another. Maybe it is too hard to break a night eating habit. Maybe you discover you can’t stop eating certain foods in moderation. No matter what happens to your weight, you will learn about yourself. And if you can’t fix it,just learning that you may need some help/support is a life-changing accomplishment.
  7.  If your diet program only focuses on food, be careful. Our eating habits are no simple matter! It drives me crazy when programs or health professionals spit out obvious information we all know without considering the individual experiences of a person. “Don’t eat too much sugar”, “Exercise more”, “Take smaller portions”, “Drink more water”,  “Limit eating out”, etc. etc. etc. What about the person who has tried to be active but just can’t because they were made fun of their whole life in gym class, failing that stupid pull-up test and mile run? What about the person who has been using food for 30 years because for them, it really is the only way they feel better? Or the person who has dieted for years and just can’t get out of that “all-or-nothing” mentality? Or the super picky eating adult who still only eats 3 foods? What about emotional eating, binge drinking, workaholism, stress, hating your job, bad relationships, not to mention health issues such as hypothyroidism, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia? It is way too easy to give advice, to think you are helping someone by spelling out eating and exercise instructions. But that is just one little piece of the puzzle. If you are determined to use a diet plan, please know that it is not the end-all and there is no shame in needing support for other things you struggle with in life. It is all inter-connected after all.

So that is my simple advice. I have so much more I would like to share but time is short today! We are getting ready for a month on the road, doing some exploring of the Southern USA in January. Being away will give me that time to reflect on the New Year and where I want to go. So far, I will share one thing I have figured out since my retirement in July. I still feel obligated to share my experiences somehow, to hopefully help others. Especially in the world of pediatrics and how weight issues are treated at times in children. I feel the need to get my 2 cents in, so finishing that book, even if it is just published on Amazon, is definitely a goal. Other than that, like most everyone else, I will continue to be grateful for all the love in my life, from family to friends to past co-workers and patients, students and families. ALL are what make me so thankful and feel so blessed.

Oh, that adorable little guy in the picture reaching for the rubber ducky? My new grandson! At not even 6 months old, he made me realize we must be born with determination. I watched him for hours mastering the skill of grasping for his toy (that is after he took a few months to get the fingers-in-the-mouth skill down pat). His face was contorted from concentrating so hard. His eyebrows furrowed, he looked so intense, he tried so hard. And when he finally got it and found out how to bring it to his mouth, the delight on his face was just awesome. We can do it, too. We can find our balance. It won’t come easy, nothing good or worthwhile ever does. If you are reading this, you surely were successful with lots of things in life (you got the ducky!). You got this, too. Happy New Year!!!!!

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

No automatic alt text available.One morning last week I went to jump out of bed as usual, ready to start the day in a rush. I had lots to do to get ready for my yearly holiday open house and had to start planning. I love mornings because that is when I have the most energy, however this one morning I encountered a little problem. I couldn’t walk. When my feet hit the floor and I began to move toward the bathroom door, I felt severe pain in the back of both calves that caused me to freeze in that spot and not move. What on earth is happening? That is what I thought at first, but then I paused to recall all of the probably stupid things I might have done to affect my calves like this. And then it came to me: lunges. My daughter had tried to show me the appropriate way to do lunges while we were hanging out in the kitchen, I was probably cooking (can’t remember, just that we were not exercising, just chatting). Somehow we got onto the subject of strength, flexibility, endurance, getting older and what was more important, etc. Anyway, I must have tried a lunge or two. Apparently, I did not get it right, and clearly, I probably need to do more as doing only a few affected my severly inflexible and weak calves in a major way. I was thrown because it really hurt. Needless to say, I limped toward the bathroom and vowed to fix this.

The funny thing is I actually have been making an effort to stretch and do yoga-y kind of things in the morning while I am watching the news because things like this have happened to me before. I am a happy slow jogger/walker/biker kind of exerciser, anything mindless that does not involve counting or time or thinking and serves to relax me. Plus my more aerobic types of activity have served me well over all these years, both keeping me sane as well as giving me a good amount of endurance (more than a lot of people my age I have noticed). I can work for hours moving wood, gardening, cleaning, shopping, you name it, I don’t usually poop out…..and I love that feeling. But, lately more than ever I have been experiencing things I really don’t love such as knives stabbing me in the back of my legs simply from getting out of bed. I need to fix this, that is what I thought.

As usual, experiences like this help me relate to a lot of people who are trying to change and become healthier. It is not easy. I started to think about all of the things people want to change like eating habits, drinking habits, sleep and fitness habits. What is so hard about it, and how long does it take? As the New Year rolls around and you start thinking about resolutions, I think it is so important to give yourself a reality check.  I see people make some common mistakes the serve as a guarantee that in a year from now they may be in the same spot. Here are some things that i have noticed and some suggestions on what may be a better way:

  1. Having really unrealistic goals. You know what I am going to say here. “Lose 10 pounds a month”. “Go to the gym every day after work”. “Run a mile in 7 minutes”.  “Stop skipping meals”. When you set lofty goals you are setting yourself up. How do you know if it is a “lofty goal” or unrealistic? Ask yourself if you have set this same goal before and failed. That might tell you something. Instead of doing the same thing year after year, why not stop and reflect on the true behaviors in your life that really do affect how you feel and even your health. For example, if you smoke cigarettes I think we all could agree that you are risking hurting your health and you definitely do not feel as good as you should. If you have tried to quit before by saying “I am quitting on Monday” and then slipped back to your old smoking habit, then chances are it may happen again. Instead, think about other options. Reading a book on quitting or checking into classes for quitting smoking is still a step toward accomplishing your goal (even if you don’t stop suddenly like you wish you could). The point is to move in a direction. Educating yourself and exploring your options is much smarter than doing the same thing over and over. When it comes to dieting and weight loss, if you have dieted before and it “worked” but somehow you have gained weight back, there are several questions you may want to ask yourself. The first being, why are you trying to lose weight? You know my thoughts on this, not everyone is supposed to have the same body. If your weight has been stable for years and you feel good and are healthy, then instead of jumping on the diet bandwagon, why not take time to reflect on where you want to be for the rest of your life? Could there be a different goal instead of changing your weight? Can you envision yourself years from now preparing healthy meals, being in tune with your hunger and fullness, freeing your mind to focus on learning how to eat healthier instead of counting calories? Following a “diet” may be helpful to some (so I have been told, and I never knock what someone chooses for themselves or what they find helpful). But, in the end, if you want to be your best and healthiest self ever, the diet won’t do it.
  2. Having a “start date”. I have noticed when people say “starting Monday I am going to blah blah blah” they tend to really overdue whatever it is they are stopping on the days and weeks before that magical date. Wouldn’t it be better to avoid this altogether by doing your research on the direction you want to go instead of doing the same thing over and over? For example, if your original goal is to lose weight, but you have decided to take the plunge and focus on eating healthier instead, why not pick something you know is not the best in your diet and focus on that? For example, if you want to drink less soda do some taste testing of flavored waters or experiment with infused waters (adding different fruits to water to flavor it). Then start by decreasing the amount you drink by increments you can handle. It is so easy to tell someone who drinks 8 cans of Coke a day to stop because it is bad for you. Have you ever had that habit? Personally, I dislike the taste of soda however I have known people who really feel they need it. They just can’t stop cold turkey but I have seen people do very well with weaning themselves off it they find a good substitute. So having a “start date” sets you up for overindulging as well as failure. Instead, looking at your long-term goals and moving in that direction is much more doable.
  3. Having self-expectations. Although I have decided I need to work on flexibility I have not given myself any specific expectations. I did that once and almost killed myself (I was going to be able to do a back bend by Christmas). It didn’t work and I could have hurt myself for life. Now, I go with the flow, sometimes taking more time in front of the morning news and other times just a few minutes because I did not get done what I needed to the night before. It doesn’t matter because I feel really good in that I am slowly developing this habit, this association between the morning news and stretching which has now become fun and enjoyable. I don’t need to do a back bend, ever. If you just let yourself move in a direction, just start something without imposing these crazy expectations on yourself, in a year from now, who knows where you will be? And if I ever am able to do a back bend, trust me, I will brag about it……but is is not my goal anymore.
  4. Defining what means “success” or “progress”. This is kind of related to number 3. When we impose ridiculous expectations on ourselves, we are almost guaranteed to feel unsuccessful.  I feel like I have made progress over these past months because my definition of success has evolved into a more realistic one. Are there things in your life that you are trying to change but don’t give yourself credit for? For example, having a goal of eating more fruits and vegetables is a smart goal for your health however expecting yourself to eat 5 cups every single day is hard. Just adding something to your lunch (like a fruit) is success. The more credit you give yourself for even small positive changes, the better your feel and the more likely you will keep doing it.
  5. Taking out instead of adding in. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say “I am giving up sugar”. Or coffee. Or soda. Or bread. Or carbs. Fast Food. You name it. Getting rid of unhealthy things in your diet doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but often this leads to the “all-or-nothing” thinking. So when a situation arises, and that person eats or drinks that forbidden thing they not only feel like a failure, they tend to give up on their health goals. Instead, try thinking about “adding in” instead of “taking out” For example, for the soda person, carrying some water bottles with you might help to quench that thirst and prevent a trip to the vending machine. For the sweet tooth, having some extra fruit in your lunch, or even purchasing “Fun Size” candy bars instead of giant ones may help move in the right direction. Not to say you can’t enjoy a jumbo candy bar when you really want one. It is just the mindless habits of buying things and then thinking you can magically eliminate them from your life that doesn’t work. And instead of “cutting out pasta” why not “add in vegetables” to your dinner? Adding in the healthy instead of unrealistically cutting out all of the other stuff makes more sense. (Note: the exception to this is people who truly can’t control eating sweets or other things if they are around and this leads them to binge eating. You know yourself best and you need to do what you need to do for YOU. These suggestions are for the average “dieter” mindset. We are all different and need to respect these differences).
  6. Comparing self to others. I know lots of women my age who can do a lunge without paralyzing themselves the next day. I know women who are yoga teachers who can touch there toes to their heads and even stand on their heads. This will probably never be me. If you compare yourself to others you are setting yourself up to feel inadequate (not always, but sometimes). We are all unique in what we enjoy, how we like to move, our sleeping habits and foods we like to eat. Block everyone else out of your mind and think about where YOU are personally and where YOU want to be.
  7. Cultural ideals over personal needs. Things change year to year when it comes to what is cool to eat (right now it is pink salt and coconut anything). You also have the diet fads and exercise trends that are easy to get caught up in. Try to be aware of the goals you are setting for yourself, and ask yourself “am I choosing this just because everyone else in the world is doing it? Or is this something I want to do because it makes so much sense to me and I feel so much better when I do it this way? Have you done the research into the facts about whatever it is you are starting to try? Instead of jumping on the band wagon, again, think about where you want to be years from now (not next month). If it is truly not you, skip it.

The bottom line, as my mom always used to say “Rome wasn’t built in a day!” I never really thought about what she meant when she said it, but now I think I get it. We don’t need to set deadlines for change, we don’t need to have unrealistic expectations, we need to stop putting time limits on ourselves. Instead, habits take time to change. We used to think it took 21 days but according to Psychology Today it is more like 66 days. Yes, change takes time, but is also takes falling on your face and failing . You learn something when you get out of bed and can’t walk to the bathroom because you were stupid enough to think you could do a lunge when you haven’t done one in…well, ever. I know I have learned I am much less flexible than I thought and at the rate I am going, it may take a few years to be able to be as flexible as I want to be. But I feel good because I have been able to incorporate it into my life. Even those 10 minutes a day is a huge success in my mind. It is a great feeling to have low expectations sometimes. I still feel like I am moving in a direction, and that feels good.

Happy New Year and here’s to you and your healthier direction, whatever that may be!!!

Lifestyle Advice on How to Live a Long and Meaningful Life: From Elsa,102 Years Young and Going Strong

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The “Dignified”Ms. Elsa

We were all (slowly) scrambling to get changed into bathing suits and pack up some towels to go to the pool. Being in vacation mode makes everything less urgent. But I was all ready, obnoxious gaudy pink flower flip flops and all, and Elsa was ready, too. Being away for a few weeks on vacation in Florida has not given me much time to write, but when I heard she was going to be down here too, I knew what I wanted to write about. Elsa is our friend’s mother who just happens to be celebrating her 102 birthday next week. We went to her 100 year celebration 2 years ago, and when the dust settled the next day I remember popping in to her apartment (attached to my friend’s home) to take advantage of the time to chat. To me, anyone older than me is a rich source of knowledge and experience just waiting to be tapped….it you take the time. I feel many of us are so busy with our own lives and problems that we forget that older people who have been around a lot longer than we have, probably have experienced what you may be struggling with today. They often have the answers you may have never considered just because they have “been there, done that”. They have learned priceless lessons (we may be blessed to learn ourselves if we live long enough)….but I want to know now!

Anyway, back then, 2 years ago, we did sit and chat as she sipped her tea and ate a few Milano cookies (which mean cookies are ok if you ask me, Elsa would know). The problem is that I was so mesmerized by her stories of family, passion, love and the changes in her life and how she coped that I did not write down anything. So here I was again, with a bit of time with Elsa, and although I did not want to bother her as she was relaxing in her comfy chair overlooking a peaceful lake, I knelt down beside her to chat. Her hearing is not as good as it used to be apparently but she had no problem hearing any of my questions and answering me in her straightforward, honest and crystal clear way.

Elsa has been through a lot in her life. Early on she married, then after having had 4 children, through unfortunate circumstances, had to raise them on her own. Back then, it was an unusual woman who could do this, but being the strong woman that she is, she did. She also was unusual in that she had a career: she was a nurse. She worked during the war and because of her passion for her work, the doctors all sent their patients to Elsa’s ward. Elsa worked on all areas of medicine and loved it all. When she talks about nursing, you can feel her pride. “I have never given it up” she tells me. “I will always be a nurse”. She explained that in her daily life she is always aware of people in need. If she sees someone struggling with groceries or their jacket, even a complete stranger, she will offer help. This gives her great joy and really touched me. Helping others. That definitely is going on the Live a Long Life lifestyle list. In fact, some of the words that came out of her mouth yesterday were so simple yet so profound….advice she had because of what she lived through. Easy to say, not easy to do.

Eventually, Elsa met an Italian man that stepped into her life and changed it forever. She says “he was the love of my life”. When she talks about him you can still feel her love for him. Her eyes well up and so do mine as she describes their lives together. This love clearly nourished her and fulfilled her in a way that she still feels. Love. It should go on the list if you ask me.

Anyway, there is no way to truly capture all the details, however here are the golden nuggets of advice I heard from Elsa. Her daughter-in-law used one word to describe her: “dignified”and it certainly does. Remember, these are Elsa’s answers to my simple question: what advice do you have for a happy and healthy life?

  • Eat Well: by eating well, Elsa means “eat everything”. Her sister was a picky eater according to Elsa, but everyone loved Elsa because she would eat anything that was put in front of her. She did explain that she also eats healthy however it seems to me, in my few experiences with her and food, that she chooses a wide variety of foods. At the pool that day (which was a bit cool and breezy for a Florida day) she ordered a clam chowder from the restaurant. It was thick and creamy, and yummy and I did not hear Elsa make one comment about calories or fat. Savoring a variety of good food is eating well.
  • Stay active: Elsa walks. She used to walk longer and now, although she still does short walks, she “does not do anything strenuous”. She does not want to hurt herself. To me, this is wise advice. How many of us think nothing is good enough unless it gets our heart rate up to a certain point, or makes us sweat, or burns X amount of calories? And so we never start moving because it is just too NOT fun. Instead, why not take Elsa’s advice and simply “be active”. Skip the ridiculous criteria we place on ourselves and just move and have fun. Elsa also dances. Oh, and she sings in the church choir, too. Singing counts.
  • When it comes to drinking alcohol, Elsa is “moderate”: Elsa says “I avoid extremes”. She may have a glass of wine with dinner, but other than that it sounds like smart advice. This is a hard one for those of us on vacation!
  • Forgive others: Elsa told me she has learned not to hold on to anything, especially if someone hurts you. Holding a grudge only hurts you, and you should try to let go of it. I have always believed forgiveness is really for yourself. Being angry and holding on to a anger affects your body in all kinds of negative ways. When you truly forgive, YOU get the gift of feeling better. The other person really does not matter, and is not the reason to forgive. It is for yourself. It is amazing to me that of all the lessons learned over 102 years of life, this is one she felt so important that she mentioned it (I remember 2 years ago she mentioned the same thing). Must be important.
  • Have a passion: Elsa’s was nursing. To this day, when she talks about it, you can see her light up. I don’t think it matters what your passion is, but if you don’t have one, if there is nothing in your life that lights your soul it might be something to reflect on.
  • Help others: this goes hand in hand with Elsa’s passion. It could be why she went into nursing in the first place, because she enjoys helping others. Although it is even more than that, more than simple “enjoyment”. You can tell it is part of who she is, it fulfills her. I don’t think we need to be a nurse or change our professions to reap this benefit. You can start today to help others, even in the simplest of ways. Open a door, pick up a bag, hold the elevator. Help someone and see how it feels. Feeling joy is definitely good for your body.
  • Accept what God gives you in life: Elsa emphasized that we are not in control of everything and it is important to learn to accept our circumstances and make the best of it. She certainly did. We all know people who have been dealt some difficult hands and yet they remain joyful and thankful, with energy to spare. And then there are those who blow up the simplest of problems into giant size issues in their own minds, negatively affecting those around them, and even their own health. From Elsa I have learned you can either complain and stay stuck, or you can move on and make the best of it. It is our choice (although for some with depression or other mental health issues, we can’t always do it on our own). I always say, if you find yourself miserable and truly can’t get out of it, get professional help. It is not your fault.
  • Faith: although Elsa did not come out and use the word “faith”, she told me that for her entire life, as long as she can remember she has said the same prayer every single morning. She was able to tell me the prayer, which I am including with her permission at the end. Clearly, from the words, she relied on her faith every single day of her long life.

Obviously, genetics plays a role in how long you live, but how you live is a choice we all make daily. How we think, our feelings that we choose to have all affect our body’s and health even more than the food we put in (and we all know people who fret about food but not about how they treat others). With the New Year approaching, and resolutions coming to mind, I hope you consider shifting your focus off of changing your body to changing your mind and heart.

Elsa’s Morning Prayer

“Good Morning Lord,

You’ve ushered in a brand new day untouched and freshly new,

And here I come and ask you God if You’ll renew me, too.

Forget the many errors that I made yesterday, and let me try again dear Lord to walk closer in your way.

But Father, I am well aware I can’t make it on my own,

so take my hand and hold it tight for I can’t walk alone.