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Make Your Environment Work For You – #10 Ten Actions To Improve Health

Habits are like magnets; the stronger the habit, the stronger the force it takes to undo it.  The more we change our environment to repel the habit, the more likely the power of the habit will be weakened.  Making your environment work for you will help you reach your health goal.

Triggers In The Environment

Habits are behavioral patterns that are imprinted in our neural pathways that are automatic and are triggered by a stimulus.   The alarm goes off, we get out of bed (or maybe hit the snooze three times).  There is a trigger, in this case the alarm, and the automatic action or habit – getting out of bed.  When changing habits that lead to weight gain or are barriers to weight loss, try to reduce the triggers that stimulate the unhealthy habits.  Triggers can be smells, places, times of day, certain activities or even certain people.   When we come in contact with this cue or trigger it stimulates a reaction.  Trying to live a healthier lifestyle means addressing each of these cues that may stimulate an unhealthy reaction.   For example, if you’re in the habit of coming home from work and opening up a bag of chips, figure out the trigger.  Is it that you are coming home from work hungry?  Is it a coworker who makes you angry?  Is it because it’s what you’ve always done the minute you put your keys down?  Is it because you opened up the closet and you saw the chips?  Is it because your kids went shopping with you and you gave in to their demands?  Is it because you went shopping while you were hungry?  Determine your triggers and gradually replace them one at a time.

How To Get Your Environment to Work For You

Create an environment that will limit triggers to unhealthy habits.


Notice how the orange painted daisy flowers and tall grass on the right of the hydrangea are much taller than the ones on the left. See what a healthier environment can do to plants!

1.  Find less tempting substitutes for the foods you crave.  If you are a potato chip lover then try black bean chips or popcorn.  If you love mint chocolate chip ice cream, then try freezing small servings of yogurt. If you love Peppermint Patties then try some mint tea and spearmint gum.

2.  Break up routines.  If you are in the habit of going to Starbucks on your way to work, then find a different route and substitute a plain coffee or tea instead of a drink
packed with cream and sugar .  If you are trying to break the chip habit, then keep a healthy snack in the car and run an errand before you go home or go for a walk right when you get home.

3.  Do not shop when you are hungry and always shop with a list.  Grocery stores are set up to entice people to shop for food they were not planning on buying.  Some grocery stores emit aromas of fresh bread or keep freshly roasted chicken by the entrance.  Shop after eating and shop with a list.  Focus on the healthy food around the perimeter of the store then go down the center aisles buying only what is on the list.

4.  Buy individual portion sizes of snack and treats when possible or put foods from larger bags into zip lock bags to create your own individual portions.  Eating from a large bag or box is a recipe for disaster.   There are individual portions available for ice cream, chips, nuts and even cookies.  Individual portion sizes are like a period at the end of a sentence.  They tell us when to quit.

5.  Limit your TV time to no more than two hours a day.  Too much TV watching leads to mindless eating and timeless sitting.  There are too many snack commercials that stimulate visual cues.  At a minimum mute the TV and walk around the room during commercials or do some strengthening exercises.

Create an environment that will foster the development of positive habits.

1.  Schedule your exercise.  Schedule it the same time of day and protect it so that it gets linked to other actions. The more a new behavior is linked to another activity, the more likely it will become automatic.  Setting the alarm earlier the night before, hearing the alarm go off, seeing the exercise clothes laid out the night before, and having the IPod or TV show predetermined will help the exercise regimen stick.  Or coming home from work and seeing the sneakers, the water bottle and IPod all ready can be the cues to go for a walk (instead of opening the closet!).

2.  Go out to eat with a strategy.  With the average person going out to eat almost 30% of the time and spending nearly 50% of their food budget eating in restaurants, eating out can be a challenge.  First try reducing going out to eat by doing a healthy pot luck or picnic instead of going out to eat one of those meals each week.  When you do go out, try to look at the menu ahead of time.  When you call for reservations check their willingness to prepare things your way.   Eat a healthy snack like a small handful of nuts before going so that you are not starving.  Choose a restaurant with a salad bar and avoid all-you-can-eat restaurants.   Be the first to order – you will be less likely to be tempted by what others order.  Ask for what you want – grilled instead of fried, dressing and sauces on the side, no butter on the meat, and extra veggie instead of fries or split on order with someone.  Ask for bread to come with the meal and keep it out of reach. If meal portions are large ask for a take home container to come with the meal, share a meal, or order a salad and appetizer for your meal.  If dessert is ordered ask for a serving of fresh fruit or split a dessert with several people.  Click here for more eating out tips from SparkPeople.

3.  Reward yourself.  That money not spent on snack food or a dessert or a meal out can go in a jar to be spent on a fun activity later.  Watch TV or go on the computer after you have exercised.  After a week of exercise reward yourself with a nice book, fun activity or a date night.  After a month reward yourself with a massage or a new outfit.

4.  Get support.  Get coworkers, friends, or family members to buddy up with you.   Create a healthy work environment by having only healthy foods at work, creating five minute walk breaks, or a monthly health discussion.   When you are feeling tempted, call your buddy to delay, distract, and increase your determination.

5.  Eat a healthy breakfast with whole grain breads or cereal and protein from eggs, lean meat, Greek yogurt, low fat cheese, nut butters or even beans.   A bowl of old fashioned oatmeal with ground flax seed, a bit of honey, a sprinkle of nuts and a dollop of fat free plain Greek yogurt is a perfect example!  Choose a low fat Greek yogurt with a handful of nuts and a fruit for something quick. There is a link between skipping breakfast and eating more calories later at night.

6.  Start a hobby.  Many times people eat out of boredom or habit, not hunger.  Having a fun hobby to distract and also calm your mind will help you to stay focused on your health goal.

7.  Drink more water.  Our body is composed of 60% water and we need it for circulation, digestion, kidney function, transport of nutrients, skin tone and temperature control.  Water can be from coffee, tea, seltzer water or even milk and juices in moderation.   Water helps to fill us up with fewer calories especially when substituted for a caloric drink or consuming vegetable based soups, oatmeal, beans, fruit and vegetables that are naturally high in water.  Water also energizes our muscles by maintaining a fluid and electrolyte balance important for their function.  If your urine is not light yellow, then you are not drinking enough water.

8.  Be mindful.  Notice your physical and psychological changes daily.  At the end of the day review the positive changes you notice.   Notice your energy level, the good feeling you get when you avoid a tempting situation, the confidence you gain as you conquer a healthier habit.  Thinking of these when you go to bed will help further imprint them on your neural pathways.

9.  Have a plan for the holidays, vacations or special events.  Do not let go of all the new habits you have created.  They will be very difficult to resume.  Even if you can’t exercise for the 30 minutes you had been doing, then at least go for ten minutes.  Think of it as earmarking the habit so it does not lose its place.  At family gatherings bring the healthy side dish or appetizer.  Find healthier versions of family recipes.  Do not go hungry to the gathering, eat a healthy snack before going.  Sit away from tempting foods and allow yourself just one spoonful of your favorites.  Focus on the people rather than the food.

Making lasting lifestyle changes means changing the way you have done things in the past.  Start with getting your environment to work for you as you gradually replace unhealthy habits with lasting positive habits that will last a lifetime!