Breaking Bad

What is it about winter that makes us drop healthy habits? I know it's cold outside and the doona beckons, not to mention a glass or three of red and a bar or two of chocolate...but still, every year from June to October we put on our trackie-dacks and ugg boots and we slack off. Then when the sun reappears we have to start the hard and remorseful slog back to our summer selves.

Well, here's a call to action. Let's make this year different. Let's check back into health now, so that by November we'll be pink-cheeked and bursting with energy.

I'm thinking about this because I can finally get rid of the few kilos I've gained being restricted from exercise due to a long term leg injury, thankfully now resolved. I don't believe in dieting and so instead I'm upping my cardio by cycling to work every other day, from my home in Sydney's North Shore to the Technology Park in Redfern. By the time I reach my office I feel energised, mentally and physically, and ready to take on the world.

A friend of mine swims in summer, in the sea. She gave up for the winter but, spurred on by my example, she hauled out her wetsuit and went down to the beach to do her daily twenty minutes. 

Both of us had to overcome mental obstacles to take on these healthy behaviours. In my case, I worried about Sydney traffic and needing to shower at the office. Then I thought of all the other people cycling to work. They do it every day – why shouldn't I? My friend was put off by the thought of getting cold. Turns out when she swims in winter, she ends up feeling like Wonder Woman.

So what do the experts say about changing bad habits into good ones?

First, they say you shouldn't decide to fix everything in your life at once. We've all done this, from vowing to give up sugar, alcohol and carbs from tomorrow to running a marathon in a month's time. There are certain behaviours that do need to be tackled cold turkey – smoking, for example – but if you decide to quit smoking, don't decide to go vegan on the same day. You'll set yourself up for failure. The drill is to take things one step at a time and, where possible, to make those steps baby steps.

The next thing is to overcome negative self-talk. It's so easy to beat ourselves up every time we make a bad choice, and to allow one slip-up to sabotage months of progress. In a sensible article on how to break bad habits, James Clear suggests using the word but to overcome negative self-talk, as for example, I'm a failure at sticking to a healthy eating plan because I had that piece of cake, but everyone overeats sometimes. I'll let this pass and keep going. We all get off track, Clear says, and 'what separates top performers from everyone else is that they get back on track very quickly.'

Clear also suggests choosing a substitute for your bad habit. Another friend of mine, who hated herself for eating chocolate every night from after dinner to bedtime, stopped this habit by taking up knitting. She can't hold the needles and stuff her face at the same time. Now she’s got a couple of very chic winter jumpers as well as the health benefits from giving up her sugar and fat overdoses.

Other people can help us maintain good habits. Pairing up with someone is a good idea because you can share motivation, problems and victories, and articulating your intention to another person puts it out there and gives you incentive to succeed.

Or you could put your intention even more out there by joining one of our great public good habit events. For example, Dry July is almost here. If you'd like a break from drinking, this is a good time to join the many thousands of people going teetotal for a month.
And surround yourself with supportive people. Positivity is catching. So is negativity and any new undertaking can be undermined by friends or family threatened by change, or unbelieving of it. You don't have to ditch your old friends but be aware, there will be people trying to talk you down from your new behaviour.

Finally, don't forget the 80 – 20 rule. Get good habits going 80% of the time. The other 20%? Well, one of the best health habits of all is to live with joy, and we all know that means allowing ourselves to sin a little. Moderation, guys, in all things.

So enjoy winter and embrace it. I'm off to do a power walk, and reward myself with a lovely, full-fat, Neil Perry beef casserole.

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