Photo: 2017 Minnesota Senior Games gold medals.

Another bike race, another hill… and once again I was dropped from the lead riders. For years I struggled to lose weight failing time after time. Bad habits in control, I ate and drank too much; and over trained. When I hit 60 years old, my weight was affecting my health, performance and self-image. Fed up with losing, I took charge: visualizing who I wanted to be and creating a process for achieving success.

By implementing small incremental changes, you can develop new good habits and minimized bad habits. I stopped lifting heavy weights, allowed more recovery time between workouts; focused more on high intensity intervals, less on distance training. I cut my calorie intake, improved my nutrition, quit drinking and incorporated intermittent fasting into my daily routine. I didn’t do this all at once, but each step was a small win over an eighteen month period. 

Slowly, but surely it worked: I lost seventeen pounds, dropped my body fat from 18% to 12%, and reduced my waist circumference by almost three inches. I felt stronger and better about myself. In 2017 at age 63, I won four gold medals in four cycling events at the Minnesota Senior Games. In this article, I write about habits: harnessing the power of our mind to change our behavior and help us become the person we want to be.

The Science behind Healthy Habits

Our brains create habits to save effort. By turning a routine into a habit, the brain works more efficiently giving less thought to basic behavior like walking or getting dressed, and diverts more processing power to strategic effort like planning and surviving. Your brain hard wires habits and stops actively participating in that action to focus on other tasks. I am guessing I am not the only one who has missed a turn because my brain is in habit of driving to work instead of the grocery store. Without habits our brains would be overwhelmed by the minutia daily routines.

Research from the book Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, suggests habits work in a loop: cue, craving, routine, reward. You walk by a bakery, smell the cinnamon rolls (cue), a sudden urge steers you into the store (craving), you buy the fresh roll (routine) and you get a wonderful hot, sweet taste sensation (reward).

Habits require deliberate effort to fight. They become programed into the brain waiting for the right cue. Craving is what powers the habit loop; anticipating the reward drives behavior. People exercise because they crave a specific reward: endorphins and neurochemicals produced by the workout creating post workout good feelings and positive emotions. A habit once hard wired, never goes away.

Creating Healthy Habits through Small Changes

Our quality of life depends on the quality of our habits. Are your habits putting you on a path for success? Positive habits improve productivity, knowledge, relationships and attitude. Negative habits increase stress, and create negative thoughts like, anger and resentment.

Small changes in habits, insignificant at first, can compound over time achieving significant results. Too often we underestimate the value of small changes convinced instead only big changes will change our life. To the contrary, much of the success achieved by professional British professional cyclists over the last ten years can be attributed to the strategy of aggregation of marginal gains: searching for tiny improvements in everything they do.

Goals are for direction, systems are for making progress. Too often, people desiring change focus on goals; only to be disappointed when they don’t meet their goal. Many people have the same goal of losing weight.  Success is achieved by those who have an effective system for weight loss. Find a system that consistently produces small wins and reinforces positive habits.

Positive Change Requires Identity Change

Achieving lasting change requires changing the right thing. Don’t focus on what to achieve, rather focus on who you wish to become. True behavior change is identity change. The goal is not run a marathon, but to become a runner; not to stop drinking, but become sober; not to lose weight, but become slim. Once you believe in an identity, it becomes easier to create habits that reinforce that identity. It is a two-step process: decide who you want to be, then prove it to yourself with small wins.

The process of behavior change starts with self-awareness. Becoming self-aware creates clarity. People think they lack motivation when they really lack clarity. By increasing your situational awareness, you can plan ahead. Knowing where, when and how to act increases the probability of meaningful change. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear, suggests creating a good habit by making it obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying. On the other hand, he recommends changing a bad habit by making it invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying.

Good habits create freedom. Changing your habits and becoming who you want to be is not easy. Give yourself time and space to achieve change. Work on small wins. Get help or get involved in a community of like-minded individuals.

As a personal trainer and nutrition coach, I help people become creatures of good habits. I can help make you stronger, improve your balance, and flexibility. I can help you change your nutrition habits to lose weight or reduce body fat. I can help you recover from injury or surgery so you can do the things you want as long as you want.

For information on training please email me at steve.crookedthumb@gmail.com

Steve Markusen is a personal trainer, fitness guru, adventure athlete and writer.

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