The first major lesson I learned about healthy eating was recognizing the power of using food as fuel. With sports being such a major part of my childhood, I quickly grew to respect the impact food had on my athletic performance. But the lessons didn't stop there. While athletics initially taught me to value the true reason of why we eat (to nourish our bodies), more importantly, it taught me a handful a game-changing life lessons and strategies that greatly influence how I approach goal setting, habit formation, and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.
Define your "why".
Whether you are looking to reach a new fitness milestone or earn a promotion at work, clearly defining your "why" is a crucial first step to take before you even begin your journey. Your "why" serves as a constant reminder that gives your path a meaningful purpose and pushes you forward during times of adversity. The stronger your "why" is connected to an unwavering, burning passion, (ie, "for love of the _fill in the blank "), the more likely you are to succeed. Many of us are looking to make a healthy change but can we answer why? Wanting to fit into those skinny jeans or get bikini-ready often aren't profound enough reasons to fuel a lifelong commitment of pursuing optimal wellbeing. It takes a significant "why" — something that resonates with the core of your soul — to truly turn hopes, wishes, wants, and dreams into a lasting reality.
Put it into practice: Before you begin your journey of pursuing a healthier lifestyle, take a moment to self reflect: What are some of your most important values and ambitions? Now align these core values with your personal health and vitality. How will achieving optimal health support you in achieving your life's ambitions? Whatever the link is, that is your "why." Hold onto it, and you'll be well on your way to living a rich and fulfilling life!
Example: If "family" is your value then you're "why" is about how taking care of yourself allows you to take better care of your family. Your health will bring you energy, longevity, and wellbeing so that you can support your family to your greatest potential.
Athletes are excellent goal setters. Why? Because they set goals without finish lines — pushing boundaries, surpassing limits and excelling beyond their potential. The flaw with "finish line goals" is this: When we set goals with a finish line, whether it's completing a race or hitting a number on the scale, what happens when we get there? Is it game over? That's how complacency is born. But if there is no finish line, then the work is never over.
Sure, athletes use milestones and stats to measure progress along the way, but their long-term goal is always to achieve their personal best. And because greatness has no limit, the focus shifts away from metrics and instead the emphasis is placed on the small details that foster improvement day in and day out.
Put it into practice: Anyone who has ever set a weight loss goal has experienced the initial satisfaction of reaching that goal, followed by suddenly slipping back into old habits and watching the pounds slowly creep back on. Learn from this cycle! Instead of setting a weight loss goal, focus on the tiny habits that nourish your body with the nutrition it needs to achieve optimal health. Rather than getting caught up in counting calories, you'll find yourself focusing on more meaningful and effective behaviors like creating a colorful plate, preparing veggie-centric meals, or drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Soon enough, you'll be actively maintaining the healthiest you ever, with no risk of relapse.
The Power of Habits.
How do athletes continue to grow, improve, and achieve? They practice. Practice, whether it takes the form of drills, training, or running through plays, is the perfect example of how habits work. Habits build muscle memory, automation, efficiency, confidence, and momentum. After a while, the effort required to perform a specific skill becomes easier than ever before, and occurs almost by instinct. Just like an arm muscle, the more you "exercise a habit" the stronger and more resilient it becomes.
Put it into practice: Identify two or three simple, healthy habits that you can practice regularly. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and soon enough this habit will be embedded into your normal routine. After about three weeks of consistent repetition, what once took a focused effort will soon become second nature.
Put it into Practice: Perfection doesn't exist – not in sports and not in life, and certainly not when it comes to healthy living. Recognizing this is the first step to preventing the "all or nothing" trap, also known as the "What the hell effect". We've all had those moments when one poor food choice spirals out of control into another. "Oops I ate a donut this morning. Well, this day is already shot, so I might as well order the fries instead of the side salad and call today a wash." This type of mentality is detrimental to your goals. Rather than letting one tiny deviation open the floodgates to mindless eating , own it, learn from it, and move on - no big deal! Did Federal Donuts get the best of you this morning? Seize the opportunity to make a healthier choice at lunch. A comeback victory is always possible!
Athletes know how to celebrate a win. Athletes understand how important it is to be present and feel a victory in every cell of their body. Savoring success and storing a vivid memory of the emotion it brings you is crucial for developing a craving for subsequent victories to follow.
Put it into practice: Revel in your success and remember how great you feel when you treat your body well! Savor the healthy choices and victories you achieve along the way, and capture the positive emotions they bring you. Maybe you feel stronger, lighter, and more energetic. Maybe you feel balanced and at peace. Whatever it is, try to tap into that "feel good moment" whenever the next opportunity to make a food decision comes your way. Sure, you can reward yourself with a new pair of Lululemon leggings, but celebrating internally is what will make you into a true healthy living champion!
Lindsey Kane is a Registered Dietitian in Philadelphia. For more nutrition tips and recipes, visit her website at biteforchange.com.