April 17, 2020

Establishing Healthy Habits during Social Distancing

Man meditating at homeBy Garth Davis, MD

Ritual, it is the key to success. Ritual creates habit. So many of us live in a rut. We do the same things over and over. Wake up, get in the shower, pour coffee, go to work. Day in and day out, the same protocol, the same food, the same movement (or lack thereof). I can map out lifestyle changes that have been shown to bring weight loss and health, but built-in patterns make it difficult to sustain new lifestyle practices.

Creating Rituals

Our day-to-day schedules are so hardwired that any change is difficult. Our default mode in our brain makes us believe we are who we are: “I don’t like working out in the morning,” “I can’t run,” “I hate vegetables.” Making change seems monumental.

While the current virus situation has been scary, and literally and figuratively life threatening, we have been given a bit of a gift. A restart switch has been triggered and our usual schedule, our baseline programming, has been interrupted. As we reboot and start going back online, it is time to upgrade our software and create new programming and new rituals.

For example, for a long time I have been trying to start a meditation practice. Every day I used to wake up with the intention of calming my brain and sitting quietly. Inevitably though, my mind would remind me of the thousands of things I had to get done. I might get a meditation done one day, but would end up with an excuse the next, and the ritual was never formed. Now, I have way more time than usual. I set my goals and have started a daily practice. I set up an exact time, and I soldier through. Well, that is what it felt like in the beginning, but now it is starting to become a ritual. Repetition leads to habit.

Think SMARTer

So, my advice to you would be to use this time to think seriously about goal setting and creating new rituals that will help you achieve your dreams. Use the “SMART” goal-setting acronym. Set SPECIFIC goals. It’s hard to motivate yourself to make change when goals aren’t specific. With my meditation, I want to be healthier and calmer, but that is not specific enough, so my actual goal is 20 minutes of meditation twice a day.

Make sure your goals are MEASURABLE. For me it is time spent in meditation. It could be servings of fruits and vegetables, or number of steps taken. Goals should also be ATTAINABLE but challenging. You want to test yourself, but don’t set impossible goals that will just lead to disappointment. If my goal was to meditate two hours a day, I would just be disappointed and end up quitting.

The goals should be RELEVANT. I am meditating to achieve peace and stress relief, which is relevant in my goal to become/maintain health. Finally, your goals should be TIME-bound. I have established a slow increase of time meditating and increasing weekly with a plan of reaching 20 minutes twice a day.

With my SMART goals in hand, I can establish my new rituals. Instead of rolling out of bed and going straight to shower, I am establishing a habit of a morning stretching routine. I have picked out a space to then sit in meditation for my prescribed time. Without the usual daily demands, I am now able to begin establishing my new habit. Soon, with repetition, this ritual will just become my default, and I will be better off because of it.

Don’t Over Do It

One final word of caution. Don’t over do your changes in isolation. People are piling way too much stress on themselves. Some people, in an effort to not waste this time, are trying to just do too much. I see people trying to learn a new instrument, new language and read War and Peace, all at the same time. Change is good, but too much will just stress you out to the point that you won’t be able to create a true ritual. “If we are unduly absorbed in improving our lives we may forget altogether to live them,” said Alan Watts.

Garth Davis, MD, is the medical director of Mission Weight Management.

Ready to lose weight and get healthy? Mission Weight Management offers you the region’s most comprehensive weight-loss team, personalized care and nationally recognized quality. To schedule a consultation with a Mission Weight Management weight-loss specialist or to learn more, call 828-213-4100 or visit missionweight.org.