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.