Achieving a healthy body weight and being fit is not a New Year’s resolution or a 12-week program; it is a lifestyle born out of habit. Approximately 45% of our daily activities are habits. The basal ganglia control the performance of repetitive daily activities which frees our conscious mind to focus on higher-level decisions. Our prefrontal cortex pawns off these repetitive tasks to conserve cognitive bandwidth. Habits allow us to avoid mental exhaustion by reducing our cognitive load. When we are learning new behaviors, it can be mentally exhausting because it requires both our cerebral cortex and basal ganglia. Our easily exhausted cerebral cortex (“Conscious Brain”) is forced to do the heavy lifting while the basal ganglia go along for the ride memorizing the new pattern. As the behavior becomes automated through repetition, the more resilient basal ganglia (“primitive brain”) take over, allowing our conscious brain to check out.
Amazingly, as we condition an action through repetition, our speed of execution increases as our brain activity decreases. Unfettered by conscious thought, our more instinctive basal ganglia execute the actions faster and faster. Our brain goes on autopilot, and the actions flow almost effortlessly. Routines make life less stressful. Routines feel right; we thrive on routines. Our days are made up of habits. Chances are good that today; is much like yesterday was, and tomorrow will be a lot like today. The activities you engage in, the places you go, the people you surround yourself with, the thoughts you think, the types of food you eat, etc. If you are not in shape, it is because of your eating and exercise habits. Daily habits are very powerful, but their effects are invisible to most people. That is because the results they produce are not immediate. Their power lies in persistence, the accumulation of small efforts repeated. The best example of persistence in nature is a stream. When a stream converges with a rock, nothing appears to be happening, but over time the results are profound.
Logging your food and creating a 500-calorie deficit for one day will not seem to produce any results, but if you did it for six months, you would lose approximately 30 pounds. If the effects of daily habits were immediate, everyone would adopt productive habits. Unfortunately, they are not. The reason that bad habits form so easily is that they produce instant gratification. Our rewards system evolved with a strong bias towards immediate gratification because they ensured our survival. Food was the reward system’s original objective, which is why we are still especially responsive to the sight of anything tasty. The more palatable the food, the greater the resulting spike in dopamine. This is the reason you do not have to motivate anyone to eat a piece of cheesecake. Cravings power our habits. The more times we repeat a habit, the stronger our cravings become. When we experience an intense craving, we feel anxious. Stress and anxiety shift our brain into a reward-seeking state. We become convinced that the reward is the only way we will feel better. Hyper-palatable foods, high in sugar, salt, and fat, can be as addictive as cocaine. People turn to these types of foods so often for stress relief that we now refer to them as comfort food. The ease of access and social acceptance of comfort food help explain the growing obesity epidemic. You’ll learn how food manufacturers and restaurant chains engineer their foods to produce irresistible cravings the way tobacco manufacturers add ingredients to make their products more addictive. They want to promote consumption, regardless of the harmful effects their products are having on the health of their customers. If you are addicted to these types of foods, don’t despair. Your willpower challenge isn’t unique. Everyone struggles with willpower. It doesn’t mean your weak; it means your human.
“Every battle is won or lost before it’s ever fought. If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” Sun Tzu