Category Archives: Habit change

Exercise really delivers what comfort food only promises

When you feel bad—just normal stress, or perhaps another kind of emotional distress—physical activity helps. Here are some of the benefits:

Unlike trying to find comfort in comfort food, moving the body actually does provide a real distraction—and real relief—from discomfort, and depending on what you’re doing, physical effort can relax the mind as well as the body.

Studies confirm the reports that exercise makes people feel better; one 10 minute exercise session improves mood (if it’s not more strenuous than you’re used to–an important caveat). After exercising, people react less severely to stressors, and the effect is cumulative: that is, people become less reactive to stress as they make a regular habit of exercise. This applies as well to people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, and depression.

Long-term benefits of exercise include better memory and cognitive function, and more creativity. (The creativity study tested problem solving while walking vs. standing still.) Another benefit is the association with better sleep, as long as you make sure you allow time to relax before bed.

As we age, there’s a host of particularly important benefits—whether or not we’ve been life-long couch potatoes. Take sleep, for example: after 4 months of regular exercise, previously sedentary adults were falling asleep faster, and sleeping better and longer.

Other benefits important to older adults include healthier aging, meaning it helps prevent chronic disease, depression, disability, and memory loss. And it can reverse age-related declines in muscle mass and strength.

But do remember that, while we can visualize ourselves as the gazelles floating around the track, we still need to start where we are, not where we wish we were. I’m a great walker, but if I wanted to become a runner, I’d have to start at ground zero, with the easy stuff.

If that’s you, too, there’s lots of info online (just Google beginning runner) and there are communities of runners (check running shoe stores). If you are in Whatcom County, like me, I can pass on a recommendation from a long-time runner for checking out the Fit School in Bellingham. And, whether you’re that ambitious or not at all, don’t forget Parkscriptions, especially if you’d like to combine exercise with meeting other health-minded people.

Stealth exercise: how to sneak it into the day

If you’re one of those rare people whose workday includes a lot of physical activity, this post may not apply to you–unless, like me, you have some aches and pains you have to be careful with.

It’s about an interesting article I just read—a reprint from Outside Magazine—with a new spin on the often-quoted advice that desk workers should regularly get up and move. What was new to me is the claim that being active outside of work hours doesn’t compensate for long sedentary hours during the workday.

First I apologize for not including a link to the article. (I confess I’m a little peeved that the site is not easy to search.) But I’m writing about it anyway because after I’d read it online, I realized that it presented a solution to a problem I’m dealing with—and I wanted to share.

The article was about the writer’s attempts to incorporate physical activity during his workday. He used an app (Move, perhaps) that gave him a task—walk, lunges, etc.—every 45 minutes he was at work. He became adept at stealth exercising: linking his computer to a printer at the other end of the building, walking with files to give the impression that he was on his way somewhere, doing lunges or a wall press out of sight of the door, etc. I loved it, having worked in places where the need to move would not be considered a good reason to leave my desk.

But since I am now self-employed, I don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks about my restless progress through my workdays—I get up and move frequently, just because it feels good, and because it helps my mind work. The bonus for me was realizing I can use these mini-breaks during the day to do the specific exercises I know I need to do to help me stay—or get—stronger: plank pose is one, for example. Like everyone I know who’s over 40, I have some back issues, or shoulder issues, or hip issues—let’s face it, after a certain point, there are always issues.

I’m fortunate to have found a wonderful physical therapist, and the exercises he suggests really work, but unfortunately the results only show up when I actually do the exercises. (I know I’m not the only one!) Right after a painful episode, it’s easy to find the motivation and the time to do the exercises all at once. But when the urgency fades, it’s much harder—I think it will be easier to do them one at a time, as breaks in my workday, than trying to find time to do all of them at once. (Okay, 400+ words written—time for a plank pose.)

Notes: it seems to be working—I am finding it easier to get most if not all of the prescribed exercises into my day. Also, the PT I mentioned is Ed Deboo, who has a useful series of videos on YouTube about dealing with common aches, pains, or injuries. Check it out.

Ten years of working with clients and students on hypnosis for weight control . . . time flies . . .

Another weight control class at Whatcom Community College has just ended, and as usual I am thinking over what we covered, and thinking too about other ideas and information that students and clients might find useful. Specifically, I’m wondering about adding more information on the newer research that challenges common assumptions about weight loss and weight control.

My first experience with hypnosis for weight loss was driven by my own experience of the problem; as you might expect, that’s pretty common for folks in this field. I set up the first class based on hypnosis to support what the conventional wisdom said was the path to change—balancing calories in and calories out, for example, and too much fat is bad and the same goes for processed food. (Now I now think good fat is good and bad fat is bad, and I think processed food is not only bad, but also seriously harmful when eaten daily.)

The very first class was the last time I followed that particular part of the lesson plan. The class participants were almost unanimous in telling me that they didn’t need nutritional advice—and it was clear that they knew as much as I did about the calorie balance theory, and they were still struggling.

So I dug deeper—again, learning from students but also from my own yo-yo pattern of weight loss-gain-loss, etc. I started reading research on habit change; I discovered the National Weight Control Registry; I started reading about neuroscience and stress and cognition and motivation, and all the other places my reading took me. I’ve never stopped. It’s led me to a different understanding of the problem, and along the way I have also lost weight. Best of all, I’m not alone. Many students and clients have lost weight too.

What I discovered, in the end, is that the problem is not really about the weight. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s not only about the weight. Instead, it’s about all the things that happen to cause us to override our bodies’ natural sense of what we need for—or from—nourishment. That realization started my shift away from conventional advice on weight loss, both for the classes and my work with individual clients.

I started this post thinking about what we know now about weight control, and what we thought we knew way back when. I was wondering if I should add information about the research I’ve read that explains why I don’t care about calories, and I do care about nutrients from real food.

I think I’ve answered my own question: yes, there is so much recent scientifically validated information that directly affects any of us who’s concerned about nutrition, health, or weight control. So much of what we thought we knew (fat is bad, etc.) is wrong—no wonder we have such a hard time sorting through all the static.

As a start, I’ll put together a list of resources—food for thought—and when I do I’ll post it here on the website as well as sharing it with students and clients.

What’s new this Fall

Fall has definitely arrived in the ’Ham. We had such a long run of summer’s hot dry days it’s been a shock to return to normal weather: clouds, soft rain, the greening grass, ready for one last burst of growth before winter.

It’s also time for me to prepare for the next round of classes on using hypnosis to support weight control. I started these classes ten years ago, and each fall I am rethinking the classes, and re-organizing material, adding new information, finding new strategies, etc. So much of that first class has evolved beyond recognition, except the use of hypnosis to support healthy changes. This time I’m emphasizing the focus on using hypnosis to strengthen self-compassion, so essential to progress in this area.

One topic that I am glad to see getting attention in the press these days is a critique of the ways the medicalization of obesity has affected the medical community and those who inevitably suffer from the blame game—internalizing the shame of being overweight. We really need to stop focusing on the weight and focus instead on healthy behaviors, on helping people figure out for themselves what helps them stay healthy and strong—and the answer is never on a chart filled in with numbers.

If you are interested, or know anyone else who may be interested, in the class or how I work with the issue, please do send them my contact info. I’m always happy to talk about what’s possible with hypnosis.

Magic wands for change

I start a new series of hypnosis workshops in October, and it’s been fun to prepare the new classes and get ready for the ones I’ve been doing for years.  In fact, I’ve been working with people who struggle with weight issues for 10 years now, and I have learned so much from the people who have chosen to share their process with me. It’s a complex issue—so personal, and yet affected by so many family, or social, or cultural, or economic influences. I have so much gratitude for the years of learning from this work, and so much respect for the people involved.

Because it is such a complex issue, many people find themselves hopeless or overwhelmed, even though they would like to be able to do something to help themselves. And it’s hard to pick out the 1 thing that could help everyone who wants to do something about the problem. Everyone is different, and my personal magic wand might be just an ugly old twig to the next person.

But I do have a few magic wands to recommend, nonetheless. There’s a selection process, of course, since we are each unique, and when it comes to magic, it’s not one size fits all. It’s more like this: which one makes us feel strong, and helps us accept ourselves, just as we are—because that’s what it takes to fight the forces (personal, family, social, etc.) that contribute to feelings of hopelessness or overwhelm.

It’s a tall order, but fortunately we don’t have to make the choice blindly. A little bit of self-reflection can point us in the right direction. When we know what truly matters to us—our values—it’s easier to make the right choice. Besides, these are simple things; if you can’t decide, you could try them all and see what feels good.

Here are the magic wands I recommend—and by magic wand, I mean one thing—one small thing—that just about anyone can do just about any time, to start making progress on the path to a more healthy way of spending our days. The 3 magic wands below are listed in an order that matters to me, but the first one would not necessarily be the right first one for you.

Magic wand 1: Moving more.

Maybe that’s a goal of walking 10 minutes a day to start. (Or depending where you’re starting from, walking 20 minutes each day or more.) Maybe it’s dancing at the sink while you’re doing dishes. Maybe it’s stretching every time you get out of a chair. Maybe it’s taking a yoga class, or doing chair tai chi at the library. You get the drift: whatever you can reliably do and feel good doing.

Magic wand 2: Practicing gratitude.

This is about looking for something to be grateful for, maybe just one thing every day. Maybe you keep a journal or maybe you just stop and think about it at least once a day. Maybe you get more creative and decide it has to be something new and different every day, or set timers during the day.

Magic wand 3: Meditation.

Maybe you start with a 10-minute guided meditation from the internet, or maybe take a class or join a group, working up to your own daily practice. For me it’s mindfulness meditation, but there are lots of options out there.

Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with doing all three, or more. In fact, for some folks, at certain times, diving into a completely new lifestyle can be exhilarating and ultimately the right first step. (Perhaps this approach should be magic wand number 4.)

These sound like small things (except #4). And they are small, and they are simple, but they are also powerful. Somehow—and this is why I call them magic, because I don’t know how it works—these small things can each lead us to recognize that we do have the power to affect how we live our lives, and that is the true beginning of making change. 

Right now I’m grateful that I get to do this work, and looking forward to new classes, and people on the path to change.

New classes: on transforming stress, and dealing with pain

Two new classes this Fall quarter at Whatcom Community College, one on the new science of stress, and another on dealing with pain. 

Want to transform your relationship with stress? The new science on stress validates the power of our minds over the way we experience stressful events. On Thursday October 12th, I’ll present some of the myths and the new science about stress, and we’ll discuss the ways we typically react when we experience stress. We’ll also learn some simple ways to mitigate the harmful effects and boost the positives—and contrary to what we’ve been told, there are many positives that come out of stressful times.

Occasional or chronic pain is a reality for most of us at one time or another, and yet most pain medicines are problematic when used regularly—in fact, there is no cure for chronic pain. Typical common causes for pain include headaches, low back pain, nerve damage, recovery from surgery or other medical treatment, and other disabilities. Any of these can affect quality of life, including things like getting the sleep or activity we need to stay positive and healthy.

Hypnosis is a proven method for mitigating or reducing pain, and hypnosis has no side effects other than relaxation. In this class on October 26th, you’ll learn how, by practicing at home, you can use hypnosis to get more control over pain and its effects.

Register for either class at Whatcom Community College, by email, or by phone at 360-383-3200.

And by all means contact me with any questions about either of these new classes.

Learning patience and persistence from a large pile of heavy rocks

Last week I mentioned the adventures with heavy rocks that resulted in me spending too much sedentary time contemplating the effects of inflammation. (I’m doing well now, and I’m learning good stuff from a wonderful PT, so the outlook is much much brighter.)

Now I have a routine for strengthening my back and getting more flexible, so that I can get back to the yard project I wanted to do this summer—which leads me to the subject of motivation.

I’m the kind who does the exercises until I don’t hurt anymore, which has always seemed like a reasonable way to deal with aches and pains. But now I’m seeing that it really isn’t that simple—or at least not so simple as it seemed when I was much younger.

The reality is that if I want to do the yard project, I need a greater level of fitness than I’ve enjoyed in a long time. I won’t be able to finish it unless I get stronger, and getting stronger before the summer’s gone means I need to raise the priority—the exercises  and stretches need to happen every day. I know myself well enough to admit that won’t happen unless I make a routine, linking the physical therapy exercises with something I’m already reliably doing.

Although I say “every day,” and mean it, I also know it’s not a realistic expectation. Life regularly gets in the way of my plans, so I have to recognize and prepare for interruptions—that way I’m more likely to relax and enjoy the distractions, knowing I’ll be able to get back to the routine next day. In this case, my plan is, if I can’t do all the exercises, I will at least do the stretches—and it doesn’t matter when during the day I do them. And since I know life will interfere, I’m more focused on getting the work done on the days it’s easy to keep to the schedule. 

Here’s an outline of the basic idea:

  • Have a goal:  Get fit for yard project
  • Have a plan for daily work: Right now that’s about 25 minutes of exercises and stretches
  • Have a plan for when I can’t (or choose not to) do the work: Do the stretches and skip the harder stuff
  • Have a plan for getting back into the work after a day off: Raise it in the priorities for the day, and/or Enlist helpers to remind me, and/or Use a calendar to mark each day’s effort for a visual reminder 

This last one is more detailed, I think because at this stage I’m still fighting my tendency to see yesterday’s decision not to do the hard stuff as a failure on my part. Even though I know this tendency isn’t helpful, it’s a hard thought-habit to break. So I don’t want to feed it; instead I want the alternative of a reasonable response to those normal days when Plan A doesn’t work.

Another effect of this approach is that by recognizing the obstacles (including the emotional one of feeling shame when I miss a day), and making a plan for dealing with them, it’s easier to follow through. As a result, I become more patient with myself, and thereby more confident that I can make good progress toward my goal.

When I do my early morning routine self-hypnosis, my plan for the day includes doing the PT exercises, too. It all helps.

Positivity opens up possibilities–after we overcome the limits of our own negative thinking

Shawn Anchor is a positive psychology expert who focuses primarily on how to use the insights from positive psychology to transform corporate culture, with the goal of helping people be happier, but also more creative, more socially engaged, and more successful.

HIs first book was The Happiness Advantage, and, as you might expect, it focused on finding happiness in work, and the resulting benefits in terms of energy, creativity, and success. (Also an easy and fun read.)

The current book, Before Happiness, is about making that happiness shift possible even when it looks and feels impossible. The book provides practical help for creating the mindset that allows our sense of what’s possible to expand beyond our perceived boundaries.

Although his focus is on the corporate world (he has a long list of big-name corporate clients), the practical stuff applies to any of us who want to make that shift into a more positive, creative, engaged way of living.

Does this sound familiar? I’m excited about his book partly because it validates a lot of what I’ve learned from working with individuals who want to change longterm habits, but even more because I can draw on his work to help clients redraw their own map of reality so it includes positive growth and change.

However, his frame of reference is grounded in business, as I mentioned. I found myself wondering if one of his statements about work-world challenges really applies in the personal realm I’m interested in—people who are changing habits or whose goal is maintaining healthy habits. He was talking about competition, and the research he quoted was a study of test takers.  It seems the test takers in smaller groups of people did better than those who were part of a larger group, because the people in the small groups felt they had less competition, therefore more possibility of success.

I think of habit change and weight loss goals as personal things that we choose to do not to  compete for a higher score or some other prize, but because we’ve decided that we matter enough to be as healthy in body/mind/spirit as we can be at the moment (internal motivation).

But that’s not always true, is it? Lots of times we have goals that revolve around comparing ourselves to others, like family reunions or weddings. And that’s not always a bad thing, especially in the short term. Perhaps what we need is to figure out how to make that sense of competition work for us, or maybe it’s to counter its effects in some other way. I’ll give it some thought, and if you have any comments, I’d be glad to hear them. 

In the mean time, if you’re interested in the book, it’s available at the Bellingham Library as well as from Village Books (Fairhaven and Lynden) and Amazon, of course. 

Can anyone be hypnotized?

I hear people say they can’t be hypnotized, but in my ten years of practice, I have yet to meet anyone who really can’t. Sure, some people take to it more easily than others, but isn’t that true of any skill we learn how to do? We get better at things through practice.

Some practitioners use a “hypnotizability scale” to determine how easily hypnotized their clients are. I don’t, because it doesn’t really make any difference to me how easily my clients go into trance, or how deeply into trance they are able to go. The value of the hypnotic state can’t be measured by how deep the trance is.

Here’s a definition of hypnosis, just to make sure we’re starting on the same page: it’s a natural state of deep relaxation and intense focus, or concentration. (It’s really very simple, even though attempts to explain what’s happening in the brain can get pretty complicated.)

The first benefit of this hypnotic state is being able to experience such a deep relaxation. If we do nothing else during a hypnosis session, I guarantee that we will feel the benefit. How often do we normally allow ourselves to relax deeply? Or how often do we take the time for it? The time we spend distracting ourselves from the cares of our day doesn’t have the same effect, though it can be pleasant.

The benefits of the relaxation itself—the side effects of hypnosis—are powerful. They include measurable things like changes in blood pressure or blood sugar readings, as well as less quantifiable things like a positive mood boost or a sense of increased energy, or being able to get better sleep.

Those side effects are reason enough to give yourself some time in hypnosis every day. If you know anyone who could use a boost in this way, let them know I have a class in Self Hypnosis on April 13 at Whatcom Community College. Here’s a link to the registration page.

The secret to robbing cravings of their power?

The way I understand the phenomenon of cravings is like this: there’s a trigger, probably established through behavior that’s learned through diligent though not necessarily fully conscious behavior. In other words, over time, we create a habit of using something—a cigarette, a sweet, alcohol, etc.—to change our experience.

And after a while, when the part of us that’s learned this lesson decides that we need a distraction from some source of anxiety or other emotional challenge, it creates a craving to send us off in search of a reward. It doesn’t really care about the reward, it just wants us to feel energized and focused instead of whatever else we were feeling. It doesn’t care if the carrot it’s dangling is something we really do or don’t want; it just knows from experience that the shift in focus to whatever the false promise is—a piece of cake, ice cream, a glass of wine—is enough to temporarily take our minds off whatever we are feeling.

I’ve noticed both through my own experience and from talking to hundreds of people about their cravings that if we can consistently ignore them, they really do weaken over time. We may find that they come back intermittently when we are vulnerable, but the more we can “just say no,” the more power they lose.

A useful suggestion for dealing with cravings for foods that we don’t really want—that phenomenon of being driven to a behavior that we already know won’t make us feel good—is to distract ourselves, since a craving, though intense, is brief in duration.

A recent study used people’s real-world experience of fighting cravings by playing Tetris versus just waiting out the cravings. All the study participants reported their cravings, rating each one’s strength, vividness and intrusiveness. Then they either played Tetris or waited until the craving passed, and then they reported on how much the cravings had been affected. When the cravings began, both groups rated their cravings similarly, but after, the participants who had played Tetris had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery—24% less, in fact—than the ones who had just waited.

The authors of the study suggest that one of the factors that makes this kind of distraction work so well is that playing Tetris engages what’s called the visuospatial working memory. “Working memory” refers to the function of memory when performing tasks, and in this case, the task also includes processing visual and spatial cues. In other words, they are suggesting that the task that draws on these two factors interrupts a craving, perhaps by diverting the brainpower that enables those cravings in the first place.

I’ve never played Tetris, but what I take away from this study’s finding is that we can further weaken cravings by making sure that our plan for distracting ourselves during cravings includes those elements of working memory and visual-spatial processing.

Lots of video games would include that, I think, although I’m not sure that would be a good recommendation for some folks—we wouldn’t want to replace one unhealthy behavior with another equally bad, or worse. So what else would work? Doing a few minutes on a jigsaw? Drawing something from memory? Knitting? Playing music? What about just watching a sunset? Any other suggestions?

Last night, just after I’d written these paragraphs, I experienced a real live craving as I was getting dinner ready before I had to rush off to an evening appointment. I thought about the options I’d just listed and realized that none of them would be helpful in my situation. But as I was making a salad, giving it my undivided attention—slicing red pepper, green onions, cucumber, a Bosc pear, some tomato—I unexpectedly found the activity very calming. It turns out that simply giving my undivided, mindful attention to the task at hand was enough to lessen the craving.

Maybe it’s really the mindful attention that sets up the processing and interrupts the cravings.