What Gandhi Taught Me About Diet and Exercise

“Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment. ― Mahatma Gandhi

GandhiAs I read this quote this morning, it seemed to encapsulate the answer to something I’ve been puzzling over.

Why do some people who want to drop unhealthy habits lack the power to turn the desire into action?

If only I could find the answer to this question, surely my impact as a health coach would go through the roof! Yet I realized that I already know the answer. Gandhi just did a great job of expressing it – even if he wasn’t actually referring to diet and exercise.

The essential difference between those that talk about positive change and maybe take a stab at it now and then, and those that decide to do it, and succeed is the source of their motivation, or to use Gandhi’s term, the source of their “power.”

Many of my clients, and it’s safe to say a big percentage of Americans, so often try to eat less or start an exercise program because they know they should. “Yeah, yeah. I know that I should…” I hear that phrase ALL. THE. TIME.

What I’m also hearing is a lot of negative emotions, starting with fear of change. Change means going outside of our comfort zone, forming new routines, and abandoning time-worn patterns. Shame is often in the mix, maybe in the form of a perceived finger wag from our doctor or loved one –“Shame on you!” Similarly, we might feel ashamed of our less-than-perfect appearance. Then there’s waving goodbye to the way things used to be. We’ve lost our youth and vitality and mourn that we can no longer do things we once enjoyed like climbing a mountain, or riding bikes with our kids.

On the other hand, people who successfully improve their lifestyle do so out of positive emotions. We feel respect and gratitude for the one body we have – with all its imperfections — and realize the importance of self-care. Self-compassion instead of self-loathing arises in the face of challenges; the unwanted pounds, the busy schedule that precludes regular exercise, and the effort it takes to change eating habits. Pride in our appearance is a goal, and last but certainly not least, we are hopeful that change is possible.

So allow me to rephrase Gandhi’s insightful words to zero in on motivation:

Motivation to change based on self-love is a thousand times more effective, permanent, and joyful than motivation based on negativity and fear.

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

My Magic Bullet for Happiness

I have a secret to share with you. It’s been called a magic bullet. For someone who staunchly DOES NOT BELIEVE in the quick fix solution, for me it’s pretty darn close to one.

Wait for it…Gratitude.

gratitudeIf you’re interested in shifting your mindset from can’t to can, impossible to possible, or more simply negative to positive, establishing a daily ritual of counting your blessings works wonders.

It’s not just the occasional words of thanks, but a quick yet deep dive into your everyday world. It’s oh so easy to reel off the day’s mishaps and woes, and we all love to do it. But think, just for a minute, about what’s going right for you.

From my interest in positive psychology, I knew of the power of gratitude. I started a daily journal on my phone, but honestly that lasted less than a week. It wasn’t until last summer that I discovered The Five Minute Journal. Ever since then, I’ve somewhat religiously spent (more like) two minutes each morning on waking and each night as I get into bed, jotting down my little lists of threes. (By the way, I’m not getting any kickbacks for this blog post.)

In the morning I record three things I am grateful for, followed by three thoughts on what would make the day great. On the days I wake with an already open and positive mindset, I go broad with gratitude for my kids, my health, and my family. On days that begin less auspiciously, I stick to things like my cozy bed.

At night I record three amazing things that happened – from getting a break from driving carpool to witnessing an incredible sunset.

The point is, whether your record things large or small, having the intention to think positively about your life and taking the extra step of writing it down are incredibly powerful. As the creators, Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas, say, the journal “…instantly helps you shift your focus on the positive and short circuits negative thought loops.”

Why is expressing gratitude so powerful? By practicing gratitude daily, the reflex is strengthened and becomes more automatic in your daily thinking. There’s research to back this. For example, a 2003 study by Emmons and McCullough found that daily gratitude journals lead to a greater sense of well-being, better sleep, willingness to accept change, and lessen symptoms of physical pain. In a word, you feel happier.

It’s a minimal investment of your time for a pretty awesome reward. Did I mention there are pertinent quotes and even some personal challenges throughout?

I can’t recommend the daily practice of gratitude enough, and The Five Minute Journal ends up being the magic bullet for me. I’d love to hear what works for you in the gratitude department.

Wellness Tips for Leaders

The following is adapted from the section on wellness for leaders that I contributed to the newly published What Exceptional Leaders Know, High Impact Skills, Strategies and Ideas for Leaders, by Tracy Spears and Wally Schmader. Whether you’re a CEO, sales team manager, parent, coach or teacher, you’ll discover useful information on wellness and more. Here’s just a sampling: 

Wellness, as a term, gets tossed around a lot these days. But what does it really mean? According to the National Wellness Institute, “Wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.” I like this definition because it reminds us that we are each responsible for our own success as a person. No one can do it for us. We have to want to take that close look at ourselves, and then accept the self-knowledge that results.

Next we commit to making changes and envision how these look moving forward. It’s an “active” and ongoing process, with no formula that works for everyone. Each of us is unique in our challenges, yet wellness is available to all of us who actively participate in the journey.

What Exceptional Leaders KnowThe authors of What Exceptional Leaders Know have done a great job of outlining a 30-day reboot that fits our definition of optimal wellness. They lead us through an Energy Audit and a Neglect Review. Together these tools boost our awareness of what’s working and what’s not.

Next, readers use information from the Audit and Review to create change in the Managed Goals Workshop. When reviewing your own behaviors, be sure a few of your health concerns make it into the exercise. Without our health, we have nothing. You know this all too well if you’ve had a health scare or suffer from a chronic condition. Lucky you if this seems like just another platitude, but someday it’s meaning will be crystal clear. Don’t wait for that day. Don’t fall prey to the mindset of, “yeah but, that won’t happen to me.” Just like everything else relating to personal success and wellness, good health involves awareness (no denial here) and consistent good choices.

My Top Suggestions

In addition to your list of goals that result from your Personal Reboot, I offer three suggestions that every exceptional leader will benefit from. In my practice as a health coach, without exception my clients need reinforcement in at least one of these areas. Even though my suggestions are undeniably basic — the first two you’ve surely heard hundreds of times — they bear repeating because they allow for the strongest, healthiest and most robust platform from which all or your energy, ideas, and talents as a leader flow.

Sleep

Adequate sleep is elusive to many of us, especially leaders. Two reasons seem to be at the root. The first is that we are taught that go-getters don’t have time for sleep. Sleep is for lazy, unproductive folk with little motivation. We hear about movers and shakers who only require about 4 hours a night (think Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, Barak Obama and Donald Trump). Remember, these folks are anomalies. They represent only 1-3% of the population. If you’re not regularly logging 7-9 hours (1/3 of us sleep fewer than 6 hours each night), you are accumulating a sleep debt that has far-reaching negative effects on the body and mind.

The second reason we don’t get enough shuteye is that many of us fall into a cycle of bad habits that undermine our ability to get a sound night’s sleep. Poor sleep quality is often blamed on age or chalked up to stress, but there are ways to improve our sleep.

– Why Sleep is Vital

The first step in improving your sleep is to understand why it’s so important to our health and our overall success. Our bodies contain a delicate mix of biochemicals, which regulate how we feel and behave. These brain chemicals become depleted throughout the day, particularly by stress. Sleep is when our bodies restore this important balance.

  • Mentally, sleep deprivation makes us more forgetful, less able to process new information and leaves us vulnerable to depression and anxiety. More sleep keeps cortisol (the stress hormone) in check while boosting our natural mood enhancer, serotonin.
  • Insufficient sleep lowers cortisol and leptin, making us more likely to crave and overindulge in fatty, crispy, salty, and sweet comfort foods.
  • Physically, sleep debt hijacks our immune system, raising the risk of hypertension and heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and stroke.

– Tips for Getting a Great Night’s Sleep

Now that you’re convinced of the fundamental importance of a good night sleep, there are a few things you can do to help you get it.

  • Charge electronic devices outside of the bedroom, or completely silence them. Beeps, hums, and chirps are disruptive.
  • Cover as many of the light sources in your bedroom as possible – that red light on the TV (a piece of black tape), the glow from your alarm clock (turn it around), the street light streaming in past your shades (invest in better window treatments).
  • Kennel your pets at night, or have them sleep outside of your bedroom. I know I sound hard-hearted, but as comforting and sweet as they are, they wake us up a lot. We need lengthy periods of deep sleep that aren’t possible if we are repeatedly awoken by our bedmates.
  • Have a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve electronics. At least a half hour before bed, dim the lights, step away from the computer, turn off the TV, and do something quiet and relaxing. Make this a habit so that your body comes to know the signals that sleep is imminent.

– If you wake at night and have trouble getting back to sleep

  • Take a look at your exercise level during the day. Is your mind worn out but your body under exercised?
  • Are you anxious about a problem or upcoming event? Keep a pen and paper next to your bed, and take 5-10 minutes to jot down ideas, to dos, even worries. The simple act of putting them on paper will help you rest more easily.
  • Is heartburn an issue? Try eating an earlier dinner, elevate your head and shoulders while you sleep, and avoid foods that trigger indigestion. If that doesn’t help, see your doctor.
  • If you drink alcohol, resist the urge to have a nightcap. Wine or whiskey may help you nod off faster, but as the alcohol is metabolized, it becomes harder to stay asleep and sleep well.
  • Are your mattress, sheets, pillows and PJs comfortable? How’s the temperature in the bedroom?

Most people don’t realize they’re sleep deprived. They don’t tie their irritability, lack of self-discipline or difficulty concentrating to sleep debt. Try some of the suggestions above and take notice of other changes that result.

More Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

That fruits and vegetables are healthy is nothing new. But I have a strategy for anyone trying to improve his or her eating habits. Don’t spend energy counting calories. Forget about denying yourself right and left. Banish the word “diet” from your vocabulary. Simply eat more fruits and vegetables.

By eating more fiber-rich, vitamin-packed fresh produce, you will be crowding out some of the less healthy choices in your day. Keep in mind you can enjoy an enormous vegetable-laden salad and not come close to the fat and calorie count in a burger and fries. And since we’re not denying ourselves, go ahead and have a few fries, but chances are you won’t want nearly as many.

Go for variety. Try new things. If you’re taste buds are somewhat challenged at the thought of veggies, set a goal of trying at least one new fruit or vegetable each day for a week. Another helpful “rule” is to limit any after-dinner snacking to fruit only. You’ll be surprised at the awareness this raises around the difference between true hunger and a craving for something sweet.

Fruits and vegetables are also nature’s best source for vitamins and minerals. Increasing your intake will provide your body with more of the nutrients necessary for robust health. When you consider everything you put in your mouth as opportunity to nourish your body, you’ll eat more mindfully and be less likely to use food for comfort.

Less Sitting

My third suggestion isn’t quite as obvious as sleeping more and eating better. But being sedentary for long periods of time is somewhat of an epidemic, especially among those working in mid- to upper-level jobs. We tend to sit in long meetings, travel by air and car frequently, plant ourselves in front of the computer for hours on end. On average, Americans are seated for 9 hours each day! In 2013, the American Heart Association stated that too much sitting is as dangerous to our health as smoking.

Even regular exercise won’t offset the negative impact of sitting for long periods of time. What does help is incremental movements throughout the day, something Mayo Clinic physician, J.A. Levine, has termed NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). NEAT encompasses any energy expended throughout the day — from sleeping to fidgeting to climbing stairs — that is not done for exercise. Levine and others have found these activities add up, and have a significant impact on our metabolic rate.

Be more mindful about the length of time you spend sitting still. When doing computer work, set a reminder on your phone to stand and stretch every 15 minutes. Take the stairs, all the time! Consider scheduling a walking meeting as opposed to discussing business over lunch. When on a conference call, put on your headset and pace around the room. You can even add in some deep knee bends and no one on the call will be the wiser.

Wearing a pedometer or using a smart phone app to track your movements is hands down the best way to track your movement. Leaders know you manage what you measure, so why not measure your daily activities in order to increase them.

Standing desks or treadmill desks are becoming more common in the workplace. Some companies invest in one or two, allowing employees to rotate through the workstation throughout the day. Certainly, investing in the health of your employees is a remarkable way to gain their trust and respect.

Your Reach as a Leader Includes Creating a Wellness Culture

As much as you endeavor to improve your health and habits for yourself and your personal success, remember that as a leader you set the tone for many others. In the lingo of positive psychology you are an “influencer.” By practicing and embodying good self-care habits, you inspire those around you. As a leader, you’re in a position to model good habits, reward healthy choices, and spark constructive change. In essence creating a culture of wellness for you and those you manage is a powerfully productive leadership skill.

A wellness culture will not take hold if leaders don’t invest personally in the health-promoting ideas and the tools. If it’s not good enough for the boss, then the team probably won’t spend the time. Employees sense a wellness program that is primarily concerned with improving the bottom line through fewer absences and less expensive health insurance costs. But when a company fully supports the wellbeing of its employees, a zeitgeist forms and builds upon itself to strengthen the company, its employees and its leaders.

– from What Exceptional Leaders Know by Tracy Spears and Wally Schmader —available on Amazon

Meditation and the Lesson of Non-Striving

For the past eight weeks, I’ve been part of a group gathering on Tuesday nights to learn what mindfulness and meditation can do for our brains, stress level, relationships and ultimately our sense of happiness. The class is called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and the curriculum was developed in the 70s by Jon Kabat-Zinn for patients dealing with chronic pain, anxiety and other medical diagnoses. Thirty-five years later, it’s mainstream.

All fifteen in the group are there for the same purpose. We want to feel calmer, more in control, more peaceful and happy. At the outset, each of us was eager to master the practice of meditation and mindfulness. We talked about our individual goals on the first night, and along with the others, I was filled with purpose and wholeheartedly striving to be a good, competent, successful meditator.

buddhaMy remarkable teacher, Breon Michel, led us through a discussion following our first week of a daily body scan meditation. What had we experienced? The guy on my right described feeling frustrated that he wasn’t “getting it.” When he finally experienced some prolonged attention to the body scan, without too much mind wandering, he felt proud. But then he got caught up in feeling good about his progress, and was back to square one. He felt defeated.

“Could it be you’re trying too hard?” Breon asked. “There’s no good or bad meditation. It’s simply the repeated process of observing your thoughts, seeing them without judgment, then gently bringing the mind back to the body.” For many of us in the class, her comments helped shift our perspective from striving to non-striving. Could it be we don’t need to try so hard to be a “good” meditator? Instead, we learned to accept our wandering mind as a natural phenomenon, so that we can refocus our attention over, and over, and over again.

Coincidentally, I’ve been caught up in a whirlwind of self-imposed pressure to make my coaching business a success. When I first launched my practice, my dream was to have numerous private clients, and to spend about three days a week, on the phone, coaching steadily and effectively.

While working to build that client base, a corporate job appeared, and I now spend a few hours each week visiting businesses around town coaching their employees. Then I added an online workshop, then the Kitchen Consultation, and sought more public speaking opportunities. Okay, now I’ve got lots of plates spinning in the air, and few areas are getting the full attention they deserve (including my blog). The original conception for my business was now clouded and definitely over crowded.

The reaction to this scatter brained feeling was to flee. I took a break. I pursued other interests and put coaching on the back burner. It was simply too much. I was overwhelmed.

At some point before I had the perspective shift about non-striving in meditation, I somewhat accidentally began to apply the same idea to my coaching business. I stopped trying so hard.

Instead of setting goals for each day, feeling I should offer my online workshop again, should have more clients, and should post more consistently to my blog, I’m trying to let each day unfold more naturally. Connections are made, or not. I’m inspired to write, or not. New ideas bubble to the surface, or not. But I’m seeing that what is now happening as my business evolves is never forced and never premature. I can see that my intuition and creativity are strongest when my mind is free from the pressure of “should.” And, by the way, meditation is pretty cool, too!

Listen to the Jon Kabat-Zinn talk about Non-Striving, Acceptance, Letting Go.

Poetry and Coaching

 

An Autobiography in Five Chapters
by Portia Nelson

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in. I am lost….I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I fall in….it’s a habit…but my eyes are open.
I know where I am. It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5
I walk down a different street.