Saturday, October 29, 2016

Exercise and Healthy Living

Photo taken on a recent bike ride

I want to begin by apologizing for not posting very frequently lately. I am in the middle of a big work-related writing project, so that has left me less time for writing blog posts.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "You are on leave, so what's with doing a work project?"

Yes, I am on leave. However, when I arranged the leave, I committed to doing some projects. They are projects of my own choice, with a relaxed timeline. I am greatly enjoying my current project, and rarely spend more than half a day on it. (By that I mean five or six hours. Yes, I do have a workaholic's definition of the length of a workday.) So after staring at books and the computer screen for that many hours, I am less inclined to write a post.

However, tonight I have been inspired to write something on health and exercise by a blog that I have been reading. That blog is Retired but Certainly not Retiring, written by John, and here is his recent blog post on the topic. A goal John set for himself when he recently retired was to begin living a more healthy lifestyle, and in particular to lose some weight. He has written some rather hilarious posts on the topic, but the goal is serious.

John's discussion reminded me of a series of posts I wrote a few years ago on the theme of heart healthy choices. My focus on this came about because I went to the doctor for a physical exam, and she informed me that my LDL cholesterol (the bad type) was borderline high. She encouraged me to start a low cholesterol diet. The handout she gave me had none of my favourite foods on it! So I promptly ignored it. But I did set about taking a look at my eating and other health habits. I talk about this in Heart Healthy Habits.

After taking stock of my healthy attitudes and behaviours, such as eating lots of fruits and vegetables every day, I took a hard look at my not so healthy behaviours. Oops!

So I set about changing some of those unhealthy habits. My first action was to research and read about lifestyles that support heart health. I looked at trustworthy health and medical websites, and also went right to the source and read some research articles in journals. So that gave me some background on what to look for in my own health-related behaviours.

As well, from my knowledge about making behavioural changes, I know that one of the first steps is to notice and track the habits. Habits are routine behaviours that usually fly under the radar. They are actions that are so routinized that we may fail to recognize that we are doing them, or to what extent. We humans also are amazingly good at minimizing the impact of or excusing our own undesirable behaviours. This is reasoning like, "food eaten while standing at the fridge doesn't count," or, "I'll go for a long bike ride tomorrow to make up for having spent the whole day on the couch today."

As it turned out, I had a number of eating, exercise, and other lifestyle habits that were sabotaging my generally healthy lifestyle. I discovered from scrutinizing my diet that I love salt, sugar, and dairy fats a little too much. It was beginning to show in my body mass index, my waistline, my LDL cholesterol level, and it was having an impact on my joints and my overall feelings of well-being. On the diet side, I explored how food, emotions, and social life are intertwined, and how that can make it hard to change habits. (By diet, I mean the food I eat daily. I am not using the word in the sense of weight loss diet. I do not believe in dieting because I believe it usually sets up or reinforces unhealthy attitudes and patterns.)

Once I had identified some habits I wanted to change, I developed a system for changing them. (I also wrote a bit about my views on dieting in that post.) I believe that when people fail at changing habitual behaviours, as happens to many in the month of January, there are a few reasons. They are:

1. Defining the overall objective in terms of a vague general outcome: "I want to exercise more." It is more effective to define the goal in a specific, concrete way: "I will exercise at least 150 minutes a week, and this will include at least 5 days of exercising, at a minimum of 20 minutes each day."

2. Trying to make a big change all at once: "I will drink 8 glasses of water a day." Well, if you currently don't drink any water, but only coffee, tea and beer, this would be a very big change to make. You would be more likely to be successful if you break it down into little steps: "I will drink one eight ounce glass of water just before I open my first beer of the day." Once you have successfully achieved this goal to the point that it is a habit, then you can incrementally increase the aim to two glasses of water a day: "I will drink an 8 oz. glass of water when I brush my teeth in the morning." And so forth. Little changes are less daunting and much easier to make and sustain.

3. Trying to change several habits at once: "I'll only drink water from now on, and I'll eliminate all wheat from my diet." Well, not only does this objective try to add a water-drinking habit, but it also aims to eliminate a coffee habit, a tea habit, and a beer habit at the same time. And that doesn't include all the complications of the wheat part. Some very determined people might be able to accomplish big complicated goals like this, but more often than not, my guess is that they don't sustain them.

4. Not tracking the behaviour. If you really want to change something, whether it is adding a new behaviour or eliminating an unwanted habit, you have to keep it right in front of you within conscious awareness for awhile. For me, I have found that the best way to be mindful about it is to use good old behaviour modification principles and track it/ count it/ tally it, then give myself some little reward for success (and I am embarrassed to admit that stickers actually work for me, but it could be whatever works for you -- a bubble bath, an announcement of success on your facebook page, buy yourself a new water bottle, or whatever.)

5. Not keeping focused on the goal long enough to make the new behaviour habitual. It takes 3-6 weeks to establish a new habit or to eliminate an old one. For me, I set the bar at 3 consecutive weeks of success with each goal before I stopped formally tracking it.

So, four years later, looking back at the lifestyle goals I set for heart healthy living, I am happy to report that I have maintained 7 of the 10 new habits with no effort whatsoever. The new habits have truly become part of my everyday living.

Although I have not been following such a formal lifestyle plan recently, I have incorporated the 150 minutes of exercise a week into my life consistently since I have been on leave (which is possible now that my foot is rehabilitated). On Saturdays and Sundays, Rob and I make a point of getting out for longer bike rides or hikes. Today we cycled 12 kilometers. Typically we cycle 8-16 km. (5-10 miles) or hike/walk 5-10 km. each weekend day. I have been tracking my exercise activities on an app on my phone. It tells me I have walked or cycled 108 km. so far in October. Once the snow falls, we will get out the cross country skis and ski around the golf course or the park. Or we will travel to the mountains for downhill skiing. During the weekdays, I walk most evenings, usually 2-5 km. I also have started an introductory yoga class, which I attend once a week. I love it!

In terms of meals, my current goal is to reduce the number of red meat dinners a week to 2. A good balance would be red meat X2, fish X2, vegetarian X1, and poultry X2. I would happily eat vegetarian more frequently, but Rob is very fond of meat and not that fond of vegetarian cooking. I am also aiming to cook more low meat meals (e.g., homemade turkey soup). I have added a fiber supplement to my daily diet, and am working on increasing my daily water intake by an additional eight oz. glass per day.

I am on leave, so I have turned the alarm clock off. Yay! I have been getting 7 1/2 to 9 hours of sleep every night. I am making up for years of sleep deficit due to my previously hectic work schedule. I am learning to be more mellow in how I spend my days. The biggest factor of all in my more healthy lifestyle is that I am no longer working 11 hours a day in an extremely stressful job.


  1. Great post. i think one of the best reinforcers for healthy living and exercise is how much better you feel. When I eat healthy and when I exercise I find I sleep better and I feel more energized. It was challenging to do this prior to retirement. I also am choosing to exercise with friends. It meets some of my socialization needs and encourages me to go, knowing that someone is looking forward to exercising with me.

  2. Carole, that is so true. It really comes down to basics - healthy food, exercise, sleep, and social relationships. For me, if I make sure to exercise regularly, it helps with all the other aspects of a well rounded lifestyle because I feel so much better and more upbeat. Crazy long hours of stressful work left me more likely to fall prey to couch potato behaviours and a bag of chips.


  3. Great post! I think you definitely are right about focusing on fewer things and making them a habit. If you are stilling do 7/10 - that is great proof right there! And as far as making the objectives more specific - I think at helps too. Right now when we go to the Y - I go on the treadmill for 60 minutes and then lift weights for at least 30. If I didn't have those time frames in my head, I think I would lose some motivation. I may have just accepted a job that will give me crazy stress until Feb.... just waiting to hear. I am working on helping out my former school district and I have trouble saying no to former (wonderful) colleagues. I know there is an "end date" - so that helps. I know it won't help my work-out routine if I don't have a very clear plan to follow. We'll see...

  4. Vicki, kudos to you for your dedication to regular exercise - kayaking, swimming, working out at the Y, etc. I would love to add kayaking to my activities, but where we currently live it is just not feasible. If we move to the coast when I retire, I plan to buy a kayak and join a women's kayaking club, and Rob is going to buy a little sailboat or rowboat. Strength-building is definitely the weak point of my current exercise regime - I need to add 30 minutes of weight lifting or something equivalent as yoga once a week isn't enough. Are you sure that you want to commit to another full time job for 3-4 months? But then, who am I to talk - seeing as I'm going into the office 5-6 hours a day while I'm on leave!


  5. Jude- thanks for the reference to my blog and really enjoyed your post. I think the level of exercise you are achieving is brilliant. For me exercise is the key. Even if I am a bit overweight, doing regular exercise makes me feel so good; alert, optimistic and more able to stick to healthy eating goals. And remember - red wine is good for the heart and thins the blood - so says Dr John!

  6. John, your post inspired my post! About the red wine, it is a darn good thing that it is so healthy for us.


  7. Thanks for this inspiring post, Jude. My husband and I have also been trying to live as healthy as possible in our retirement. Your post provides excellent reminders for us.
    Thanks also for the link to John's blog...I am off to read it right now. Good luck with your work project.

  8. Donna, I think that having time to exercise regularly and eat more mindfully will be one of the great things about retirement - when I finally get there! I am having a chance to try it out during this year of leave. Guess what else I am discovering? I am soooo busy. Not sitting around twiddling my thumbs at all. That's actually a relief, as I am not the thumb twiddling sort...