You’ve read those do-it-now, get-fit-quick, ‘weight-loss in a week’, tips to get you healthy/fitter/thinner/younger, in various blogs, social media posts, books and magazines, right? Especially in January…
“Just 5 minutes yoga a day prevents wrinkles”, “get a flat tummy in just 10 minutes a day” or “run an ultra-marathon with 30 minutes training a day”.
That’s 45 minutes before you’ve even started looking after the rest of your life or even cooked a meal. If you’re not a celebrity, can’t afford a chef, personal assistant, full time coach or housekeeper, it can be difficult to find the time, let alone the cost.
Add to that the restrictiveness of advice – “avoid all carbs!”, “fat is bad!”, “count all calories” - which can seem impossible to stick to all the time and in all situations - you’ll be so put off, you may not even start. Improving your health can seem like an impossible task. And what does that mean anyway? Never eating chocolate, exercising every day and declining all alcohol – for ever?
Does it have to be all or nothing? Or can you, perhaps, be “healthy in the middle”?
Let’s be clear, the more effort you invest in your health, the better the result. Of course, some people do live to 100 although they drink, smoke, live on chips and the only body part they move is their finger on the remote or the ‘order’ button on a food delivery service (we’re not talking about those people because we know they they’re very much the exceptions).
We more-or-less know what is and isn’t good for us, and having a healthy, real food diet, cooking from scratch, putting in some regular exercise, getting out into fresh air, taking time for some sort of relaxation and scheduling ‘me-time’, is evidenced to increase our chances of living a longer and healthier life. But, can we also benefit from some diet and lifestyle changes, even if we’re not able, or willing, to stick to all of the above, all the time?
The Pareto Principle – aka the 80/20 Rule
The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. It was named after an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who observed back in 1896, that 80% of Italy’s wealth belonged to only 20% of the population (some things never change!).
Applied to health, this could mean: 20% of your lifestyle choices are responsible for 80% of your health outcomes. This means that small changes, or even a single one, could have a significant impact. Giving up smoking would positively impact someone’s health, their sense of smell and physical stamina, not to mention their finances. If you drink alcohol most days and too much of it on many of those, cutting back would make a huge difference in how well you sleep, how much you weigh, how likely you are to suffer from heart disease, cancer, dementia or liver disease later in life. If your diet revolves around sugar, removing that one substance from your diet could reduce pain and inflammation, put an end to cravings and binges, improve your mood and protect you from type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, dementia and depression.
I’m not saying that those changes would be easy, but you don’t have to turn your whole life around to be healthier. According to the Pareto principle, you can become a lot healthier with a lot less effort. So, pick the one thing that bothers you the most, the one thing that you suspect has the strongest impact on your wellbeing and focus on that. It's a place to start. Once you’ve conquered that, you can, if you want, move on and tackle the next thing – one step at a time. It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’. It also doesn’t have to be everything.
80/20 Rule (part 2)
If you eat healthily 80% of the time, you can afford to go off track 20% of the time: maybe on holiday, at a birthday party or at Christmas. The same applies to doing regular exercise – you can have some time off. Your body can take up where it left off. But only when you’ve established the 80% rule as a habit.
Create new habits
Allegedly, the average adult makes around 35,000 conscious decisions a day, 221 of which are just about food . It's hard to imagine it could be so many, but we don’t need an accurate figure to understand how exhausting it is to make decisions all the time:
• What shall I wear?
• Do I fancy eggs or porridge today?
• If eggs, should they be boiled, poached, scrambled or fried?
• Butter, olive oil or coconut oil?
• Will I go for a run or not?
• If I’m running, how far? How long for? Which route? Alone or with friend? In
silence or with music?
It’s easy to see how all those decisions mount up.
Conversely, we don’t ask ourselves whether we should brush our teeth today or get dressed. We don’t deliberate over whether to buckle up the seat belt when we’re driving. That’s because these things are habits, they run on autopilot. Habits take away the need to make a decision. We once decided that this is how we’d do something and then did it repeatedly, until it happens almost by itself. Habits may make life more predictable, perhaps more boring in some respects, but also easier. Habits are efficient. They free up your brain to busy itself with more important decisions.
Forming a new habit takes anything between 18 and 254 days, on average 66. Whether it takes someone closer to 18 or closer to 254 depends to some extent on the type of person you are, but the most important thing when trying to form a new habit, is consistency. Repeat that one change every day and you’re much more likely to make it a habit.
When you first make changes to your diet, it can feel like you are “on a diet”. You’re not. You’re learning to eat differently for life in order to benefit from your new way of eating, for life. Essentially, you’re re-setting your metabolism, the way your body functions and you’re making it function in a way which makes it more tolerant to the 20% fluctuations. But when you first start to make changes, it can be hard and ‘forever’ can seem like a very long time.
Does that mean that you’ll never have another slice of cake or pizza? No more takeaways? Ever? Again, with that prospect, you may never start.
This is where the other 80/20 (part 2) rule comes in. Once you’ve established a healthier way of living and a more tolerant body, a slice of cake or a couple of glasses of wine are not going to kill you. If you’re at your friend’s dinner party and you fancy that rich dessert, have it. And nobody likes a food bore at a dinner party, anyway.
This does NOT mean that you’ve fallen off the wagon and might as well not bother anymore. It means that you ate away from home and had what was on offer. It's not the end of the world. Move on but continue to eat according to your new way of eating again tomorrow. Remember, you’re developing new habits, not revisiting old ones.
There’s one caveat to this, and that’s about knowing yourself. If you’re an all-or-nothing person, if you know that having had chips once, you’ll not be able to stop again, then perhaps don’t tempt fate. See below for further info.
But once you’ve followed your new way of eating for some time and your tastebuds have adapted, once you’ve seen and felt the benefits, you may find that you now no longer like the foods you couldn’t resist in the past. Cravings subside and processed, sweet or ultra-processed foods become a lot less appealing. Then, you may not need the 80/20 rule anymore.
You might be the kind of person who can stick to resolutions immediately or know that having one biscuit will open the floodgates – and you won’t stop until you’ve eaten the entire packet! Others can stop after having just one every now and then. So be honest about the way you are and do what works for you.
And regarding exercise, how many times has a friend or partner shared a health tip with you that worked for them? Maybe your husband feels like a new man since he took up running. Maybe your friend swears by her early morning swim because it helped her depression, start her days more energised, lose weight and be happier. But is this for you? If you don’t like running or the thought of jumping into cold water fills you with dread, never mind how much good these things do for other people, it probably isn’t for you. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re unlikely to stick to it.
Think back to what you enjoyed doing as a child - could you revive that love you had for cycling? Would it be worth dusting off your rollerblades or hula hoop? Can you find an adult dance class near you, or on-line?
If you don’t like running, how about walking? A 2013 study concluded that “moderate (walking) and vigorous (running) exercise produced similar risk reductions for hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, and possibly coronary heart disease.” The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week. That’s just over 20 minutes every day or 30 minutes, five days a week. Walking, pushing a lawnmower, dancing, or riding a bike, all count. Anything that increases your heart rate, gets you slightly out of breath and increases your temperature. If you find walking on your own boring, buddy up with a friend, join a walking group, listen to an audiobook while you’re out, or use your time outdoors to look out for great ideas for photos. You may prefer to spread your exercise throughout the day at home, chunking it up whilst the kettle boils or every time to get up from your desk. High intensity interval training can be perfect for this.
So which kind of person are you? Once you’ve established that, you can set your goal(s).
Research has found that people who have goals – particularly challenging goals – are considerably more likely to succeed than people who do not. Ideally, those goals should be SMART:
Specific: Be clear about EXACTLY what you want to achieve. “I will cook
from scratch 4 times per week” is specific. “I will eat more home-
cooked food" is not.
Measurable: You can easily count the times you’ve cooked from scratch, or
track it with a tick list.
Attainable: If you’re working 10-hour days, look after an elderly or unwell
family member, or have a two-hour commute, it may not be
feasible to cook four times a week. But batch-cooking four meals
on a weekend might be.
Relevant: Is this goal relevant for you? Is it really what you want? And is this
the right time to start, or will your current commitments, social
diary or holiday sabotage it?
Timely: If this is the right time to start, when do you want to achieve this
Now, you could write down a list of goals, every single one of them SMART.
But is it feasible to reach them all?
At this stage, the goal is just wishful thinking - you still have to actually do what it takes to get there. Will you be willing and able to put in the hard work required to reach ALL of your goals? Depending on how much effort your different goals require, it might be better to pick just one – the one which’ll have the most impact – and focus on that. Much better to reach one goal than to abandon five because you’re overwhelmed and then fed-up because you’ve ‘failed again’.
If you can’t do it every day, have you been unrealistic about your goal or the context of your current lifestyle in which to do it? Did you plan on going for a 30-minute run every day, but find it’s not happening and decide you’ll start again next week? Or doing it but getting injured after a couple of weeks?
You don’t have to become a superhero overnight. Start with a 10-minute run or walk. Start with twice a week – it’s twice more than you did the week before. And chances are, once you’re out there, you’ll soon start to walk or run for a bit longer, building gradually. And once you’ve done it twice last week, you may be able to fit in another session this week.
So, don’t be a ‘boom-buster’ – think more tortoise than hare…you’re in this for the long-term, right? Rome wasn’t built in a day and your old habits developed over your lifetime to date…so why the expectation to make new changes so quickly?
The same applies to changes in your diet – habits of which may have been set way back in your childhood. Do you want to cut back or even eliminate ultra-processed carbs from your diet? You could start by switching from refined (white) starchy carbohydrates to unrefined (wholegrain) versions: brown rice instead of white, wholegrain bread instead of white. Next, you might reduce portions sizes. Or, you could start by taking out the obvious sugars: biscuits, cakes and confectionary, leaving the other processed carbs such as white pasta in your diet for now. Healthier swaps are also useful – that way, you’re replacing rather than eliminating.
Want to eat less meat but not convinced about Veganuary? If you’re doing this for health reasons, start by replacing your pork pies, sausage rolls and scotch eggs for leaner, better quality meats such as turkey or chicken in a less processed state. Cut down on sausages, bacon and meat-based take-aways and replace these will home-made fish or vegetable curries. Add in more oily fish or have a veggie night…all these will help your health and well as your pocket and will slowly but surely develop both your taste buds as well as different eating habits.
Any step will take you in the right direction and closer to where you want to be.
But only if you take it.
Friends and Family also need time…
Your body is incredibly adaptive but you need to give it – and your brain – time to adapt. This is also the case with family and friends. When we make changes, the people around you can be incredibly supportive. But your new year’s resolutions may not always be taken seriously and sometimes, friends and family can sabotage your plans without even realising it.
Give them time to accept this ‘new you’ - your consistent efforts will show them, and you, that it’s not just for a few days in January…
[i] A figure that circulates on the internet without a source ever being quoted. So, who knows? Let’s settle on “a lot”
[ii] Wansink, B. & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and
Behavior, 39:1, 106-123.
[iii] Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J (2010): How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in
the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology 40:6:998-1009.
[iv] Williams PT, Thompson PD (2013): Walking versus running for hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes mellitus
risk reduction. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2013 May;33(5):1085-91.
[v] Locke EA, Latham GP. New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science.