Category Archives: Habits

Preventing Childhood Obesity


If you read The Onion, you know it has a disturbing tendency to report things as they really are, with a bite. It does not disappoint with “Preventing Childhood Obesity.” It lists a mix of the sad and absurd, all with underlying facts, including:

  • Avoid buying unhealthy foods, such as anything marketed to the American consumer.
  • Set a good example by choking down a salad in front of your kids.
  • Make healthy tweaks to favorite dishes, cutting back on the salt, fat, and sugars that are the sole basis of their appeal.
  • Obesity has a large genetic component, so make an effort to only pass the slimmest of your genes onto your children.
  • Limit your child to one food a day that contains the word “Cheez.”
  • Help your child develop good diet and exercise habits by raising them in a different country.

Raising them in a different country may not help. Although US children are particularly hemmed in by reduced recess and gym activities in schools, more screen time, and more indoor activity in general than in previous decades, European children also see a dropoff in activity. And in some countries, notably in the Middle East, where outdoor conditions are hostile, prosperity has walked hand in hand with a dramatic reduction in activity, change in eating habits, and spike in diabetes – stark even by US standards.

But other factors represent opportunities for action. Avoid bringing packaged and processed foods into the home, for example. Packaged, processed foods often have lower nutritional value than whole foods prepared at home. Where they are used, it’s best to save them for treats or other small roles in the overall food pattern. Basic cooking skills serve anyone well, and kids love to help, so take a look at this list of age-appropriate kitchen tasks and delegate.

How you eat and move is the single greatest factor in how your kids will, so don’t ask them to do what you say (but not what you do). Try to keep those messages as consistent as possible – and discover ways to make salads and other wholesome foods more enjoyable. Yes, that may mean using less fat, salt, and sugar in cooking, but it also means using more spices and a wider variety of foods. And discovering new favorites.

Between work and the kids, when do I go to the gym?
September Is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month
How to Use Your Baby as Exercise Equipment
10 Ways to Raise Healthier Kids
Envy for Kids’ School Lunches
Halloween Party Foods
Have Some Fun with Your Food
Burger and Fries…?
A Better Replacement

A Vacation That Really Rests You


For many families, summer means longer days, a break from school, and family vacations. If everyone’s getting increasingly sleep deprived, that summer vacation can be more than just a getaway — it can actually help the body restore balance to its sleep and waking schedule. And better sleep means everything is better, from your energy level to your mood — and your ability to make good choices.

The researchers then took them on a weeklong camping trip in the mountains of Colorado—separating them from smartphones (gasp), TVs, laptops, and even flashlights. What they discovered was that after one week of light exposure limited to just sunlight and campfires, everyone’s body clock shifted to match the natural light cycle, resulting in earlier bed and wake times. So if you’re struggling to get to bed early and rushing off to work, and you’ve still got a week or two available, do yourself a favor and squeeze in a camping trip before the end of the summer. Your body, and your body clock, will thank you.

If camping isn’t in the cards, the researchers recommend an early morning walk to kick off your day—or try eating breakfast outside in the sunlight. At night turn down the house lights, and dim those smartphones, TVs, and laptops. Sweet dreams!

— Reset Your Body Clock with a Camping Trip

Why Athletes Love to Sleep — and So Should You
Tips for Better Sleep
Sleepless in America

Image by me. Even in a really fancy tent, a camping trip can help you reset as long as you go easy on the artificial light sources.

The Cost of Getting Lean

See full size at the link below

Many people begin an exercise program excited to “look like their goal body” — often a celebrity or model. The fitness industry and mass media promote this kind of goal heavily, in the way they market imagery and make claims for the recommendations they give, but they often hand-wave the realities behind the photos. Even splashy articles describing how an actor got in shape for a superhero role are often fuzzy about the sheer number of hours in the gym, the personal-trainer assistance, and the food-preparation support the actor gets. Working out — along with rigid eating — is a full-time job for months to prepare for those roles.

This infographic from Precision Nutrition gives a great breakdown of the trade-offs of going leaner and leaner, as well as offering a handy cheat sheet for the kinds of lifestyle changes that support the different levels of leanness. (I don’t recommend pursuing that first “unhealthy” category, though! And in the second, ultra-lean “unhealthy” category, competitors and paid models achieve that level of leanness intermittently during the year, rather than maintaining it all the time.)

Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?

Googly-eyed breakfast by Angie Naron

Over the last few decades, claims have grown up around breakfast — notably that people who eat “a good breakfast” have all kinds of good outcomes, like easier weight control and better metabolic function. There isn’t a lot of great science on this, because studies are notoriously bad at food tracking, but there’s also no great evidence that breakfast has magical qualities by itself. Large observational studies have shown a benefit when breakfast was a regular feature of a person’s day, but people who are careful to have “a good breakfast” may do a lot of other things that keep them in good health, too. Short-term studies have not shown smoking-gun issues from skipping it.

Eating breakfast can make good choices easier for some people, though.

Breakfast Can Help You Make Good Nutrition Choices If…

— You just like having a meal in the morning, large or small — especially if missing it on hectic days leaves you feeling bad or frustrated. Finding a way to protect that meal can make the rest of your day go better.

— You exercise in the morning. Whether you eat before or after, or have a small snack before and more food after (the timing is personal), moving more means eating more, and people often feel more comfortable when they eat at a time close to their workout.

— You work in an environment with a lot of empty-calorie options hanging around, whether it’s nearby coffee shops or donuts or vending machines in the break room. We often eat simply because food is present. Already having some food in you (especially satiating, filling protein and fiber) or packing a nutritious snack can help you resist “because it’s there” eating.

— You try to skip breakfast to “save calories” but end up feel deprived and hungry. If skipping breakfast leaves you grazing all morning, you might feel more alert and happier with a nutritious snack first thing.

– You have medical issues. If you have diabetes, of course, a dietitian can help you choose foods and meal times as part of your treatment. Other medical conditions can also have food and timing implications — work with your healthcare team if you’re under regular care.

The Traditional Morning Breakfast Doesn’t Matter If…

— You feel fine and ready to get going on your day once you roll out of bed.

— You’ve comfortably adopted a “feeding window” approach to eating that has you “break your fast” at a different time of day. (People may lecture you about this. Tell them, “I do have breakfast — just later.”)

— You may actually feel worse when you eat right after waking. You may be fine with “nontraditional” breakfast foods, starting with a very small snack, or just eating after you’ve gotten a start on the day. It’s worth keeping an eye out for health or stress issues that may be involved, but if that coast is clear, it’s down to what works for you.

— You think breakfast means only cereal, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and pastries. There’s no reason to limit those foods to a specific time of day, if you like them, nor any reason to privilege them as first foods of the day. A turkey sandwich is also a good breakfast, and diners serve “breakfast all day” for a (delicious) reason!

It’s Your Overall Pattern That Matters Most

The breakfast issue is similar to the claim that “small meals boost the metabolism.” Some people feel better with lots of small meals — or when they eat breakfast. Some people do fine — good energy level, able to do the activities they care about, able to stick with a nutritious eating pattern — with one or a few big meals, with or without breakfast. (Oh, and if you study someone making an abrupt change in pattern, they may get outsize results.) Humans are highly adaptable, and the major factors driving weight are simply how much you eat and move. So keep an eye out for the ways that make it easiest for you to make the choices you want to make.

Image: Angie Naron created this wonderful breakfast as part of a challenge issued by Amy Sedaris. You can see other entries at the Flickr group.

Rude Treadmills


Dr Lahiri of The Mindy Project is offended when the treadmill asks her how much she weighs, but it thinks it has a good reason. It’s planning to use that information to estimate calories burned during the session. Unfortunately, calorie burn varies so much from person to person that the simple physics-based calculations gym machines do are not that accurate — and that’s just if the machine is well maintained.

One of the problems with gym-machine calorie estimates is that specific numbers like “287” or “719” look so real — it’s an example of something appealing to us because it is precise (a distinct number, particularly when it’s a small unit like calories) even when it is not accurate (actually giving you useful information). So feel free to reject the machine’s question about your weight.

Then What Should I Keep Track of?

You should definitely keep some kind of record of your exercise — even a simple record can help keep you in the habit, like a check mark on the calendar for each day you reach a minimum level of exercise.

When tracking exercise itself, try to stick with information you can truly measure:
— Time spent
— Distance covered
— Heart rate (if you want to wear a chest strap; other methods are not quite reliable enough yet, except for spot checks, usually without moving)

US guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, plus two strength sessions. CDC offers information about how to tell what’s moderate, too.

The Habit Loop and the Golden Rule

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks extensively about the “habit loop” and the “golden rule” of habit change: a habit has a trigger, a routine (the habit itself), and a reward. The trigger is sometimes referred to as an anchor (as in, “when I wake up, I always…”), and the reward may be, for example, a feeling of relaxation or another positive emotional state. This is a model for understanding why people can “replace” harmful habits, like smoking, with other activities, like chewing gum: they can use the same trigger, and as long as they can find a replacement routine that gives them a similar reward, they’re golden.

Anchoring and reward help establish brand-new habits, too. In BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program, for example, the very first step to establishing the new habit is to find a good anchor: something you reliably do at the same time of day and with the same frequency as the new habit you want to develop. He also builds in a reward concept, saying he likes to inject some happiness into completing the action by saying “Victory!” afterward. Other examples could be the pleasure of earning a check mark on a calendar, or social support from recording a workout on a social fitness site.

Understanding these patterns can help us find solutions when we bump up against obstacles in doing the things we wish we were doing — and helps to explain why people have so little success when they try to lose weight by eating food or doing workouts they hate. We may need some willpower — and some problem-solving — to get started with a better behavior, but with some persistence, we’ll be able to repeat it consistently enough to make a new habit.

Image: Detail from a flowchart in Duhigg’s book. He discusses it in a blog entry, “Infographics! (Or, a flowchart for changing a habit).”

Life Hacks and To-Do Lists


“Life hacks” entered the language around a decade ago when Danny O’Brien talked about them in the context of programming. In programming a hack is “a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix.” This idea has exploded in popularity and has inspired contrarians, who deride life hacking as part of a shortcut culture that can’t seem to buckle down and do real work.

To-do lists are a classic productivity tool that have inspired thousands of technological solutions, incorporating nested lists, calendar features, and the ability to add images. The iOS App Store alone has dozens — maybe hundreds (or more) — of apps for to-do lists or task management, some with enough organizing features to make to-do list management your full-time job. And yet productivity experts may recommend, as a first step, throwing away the to-do list.

Life hacks and to-do lists do help many people to be more efficient and productive, but they share a problem with such perennial publishing favorites as lists of 10,000 tips for weight loss. There are thousands, probably millions of useful ways to do almost anything a little better, but only a handful of them may apply to you, personally. Big lists have to be approached as opportunities to skim for the items that jump out at you, and not as … to-do lists, which stun us with the paradox of choice and then risk undermining us with decision fatigue.

How to Make Hacks and Lists Work for You

The key to efficiency — getting more results out of less effort — is reducing the friction of unnecessary effort, so you can save your energy for more meaningful work. Reducing the friction for good actions means making them easier to do — and making as many good behaviors (like eating nutritious food or exercising more) not only easier but routine, habitual. (You can also increase friction for actions you want to do less — the classic example is not keeping junk food in the house; another is to make treats harder to reach.)

So whenever you see a new life hack, or as you think about how you plan your day with lists, ask yourself: does this solve a problem I genuinely have? Does this make it easier for me to do something I would otherwise put off (or forget)? Does this replace a time sink with a decision that’s already been made? Scott Young offers some steps for thinking through these kinds of questions. You may not want to go the full Steve Jobs route of never wearing anything but a turtleneck and jeans, but a life with less friction will be — by definition — smoother.

Image: I took this photo at a gym that has an excellent selection of specialized equipment for strongman training. People sometimes get ridiculed for driving to the gym — or taking the escalator when they get there — and then getting on the exercise machines, but most gym workouts have a little more variety and control than walking or biking to the gym, and that short escalator ride is helping you get in the door, which can be the toughest part of a workout. Cars and escalators reduce the friction of getting in to do that variety of work, where you then “add friction” in specific ways to get a good workout.

How Do I Get My Partner to Exercise?


Johns Hopkins has presented data for a large group of middle-aged couples, who were asked about exercise habits at two medical visits conducted roughly six years apart. If one was getting at least the recommended amount of exercise each week at the first of those two visits, it was quite likely the other would be, as well, by the time the second visit rolled around.

If you want your partner to exercise more, just keep exercising. Social effects like this have been demonstrated in groups, acting on obesity and smoking (or quitting), too, so it’s not an enormous surprise. There are also some ways in which this population is special: in older adults, some of these changes could have been prompted by a move to a different climate more (or less) to a partner’s liking, or retirement.

And childcare was probably not a common hindrance to getting exercise time in this age group. Childcare should not interfere with exercise — on the contrary, you can pass a gift of healthy habits on to the next generation by involving your kids in regular activity. For less kid-friendly exercise sessions, of course, partners should cover each other.

We can borrow from medical experience, too — this is road well traveled for families where one member has a chronic condition. Here are some modifications of suggestions from WebMD’s recommendations for the partner of someone with diabetes:

Offer help, but don’t “police” your partner. Your partner may have very different ideas about what kind of exercise is right for them — let them decide.

Make your home a place that supports good health goals. If you know your partner tends to raid the snack cabinet, help keep healthier options easier to reach. And if you use an exercise bike as a clothes rack, just stop — make sure any equipment you have is accessible and usable.

Help your partner carve out time for exercise. Many couples are comfortable with a division of labor in which one has more responsibility for home and children, but this can make it tough for the home-centered parent to assert “me time.” Don’t wait for your partner to ask. Pitch in.

Be prepared for frustrations. Establishing an exercise habit can involve setbacks, like injuries, difficulties in sticking to a schedule, or just not liking something as much as you hoped you would. Ask your partner how they want you to support them.

No matter how good our intentions, sometimes our attempts to help can feel intrusive to our loved ones. This crocheted Clippy was made by Lillian Minneman, of Just Stitched.

What Makes Habits Stick?


Habits can help us build a solid foundation of good health, low stress, and readiness to act. For scientists, as Isaac Asimov noted, few discoveries are of the “Eureka!” variety but instead something closer to, “Hmm, that’s funny…” combined with having a sense of good questions to ask to figure out what’s happening. You, too, need to start with a few questions.

The most important question you can answer is: Why do I want this? Almost all the messages we see about good eating and exercise habits focus on appearance-related goals like “abs” or a certain dress size, but people who succeed in exercising regularly point more to the way it makes them feel. If that seems hard to relate to, take a look over this list from Greatist of ways you can benefit from exercise and better eating.

Questions Can Help You Identify Your Next Steps

— What kind of exercise do I enjoy, or want to try?
— What kind of exercise do I hate?
— Does going to a gym sound like fun?
— Can I add more activity in my daily life, like walking or biking as part of my commute?

— What foods are absolute favorites that I never want to give up?
— Do I ever feel a sense of regret or shame after eating?
— Do I like to plan my meals, or do I grab whatever?
— Do I want to learn some cooking skills?

If this is all brand new, you may think “Enjoy? I hate exercise!” Be honest with yourself about the most negative responses you have. Those negative reactions can help you understand your personal obstacles. What, exactly, do you hate? If you think “exercise” = “exhaustion in the gym,” it may help to know that the daily activity we need for health is pretty moderate and doesn’t require special equipment, long hours, or complex routines. (Breaking Muscle has a nice list of “bare minimums” in “The Lazy Person’s Workout Guide.” I think the rest of it misses the “Lazy Person” point, though!)

There are thousands of recommendations out there for establishing a new habit, but the odds of success are low if the habit you try to establish is unpleasant. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits system asks you to start really small — with something that can be completed in 30 seconds — both as a way to make it easy and, importantly, as a way to try out the new habit and see how it goes. If it’s not working (“I want to do one push-up every morning, but it’s stressful to get down on the floor and get up again”), revise it (“I’ll replace it by lifting a bag with books in it overhead”) — the ability to say “This doesn’t work, so I’ll find something that does” is part of having healthy habits.

When we’ve finally decided to make a change, we may find ourselves in a rush to get results. It’s understandable, but that rush can lead to burnout. A good alternative is start living like the person who already does what you want to do. Big goals are well served by small, specific actions that point you in the right direction. Do you want to make healthy food choices, get some exercise every day, or (ideally and!) get more sleep? Start small, with the easiest good choices, and get into the habit.

Image: Leo Collum, in the New Yorker, from 1998

Are You a Rebel?


When we are trying to establish a new habit, we are often advised to seek accountability partners of some kind. That could be a workout partner, for example, or a family member that you share (healthy) shopping and cooking tasks with. Some people benefit from working with a personal trainer, and others can go it alone but like the visibility of sharing their activity with an online community. But accountability partners only work if you want them to.

Gretchen Rubin writes about habits and happiness. Her new book, Better Than Before, talks about establishing good habits and — more challenging — breaking bad ones. Although I have not read the book, her approach is a simple and reasonable one: for many of the actions that support our health, good habits are key to success. One of her overall themes is personality style — do you respond better to external pressure? Or does it tend to make you feel contrary? She offers a brief quiz, called The Four Tendencies, to help you identify your style.

As you look at the quiz questions, think particularly about a habit or practice you’ve struggled with. I happen to enjoy exercise, so I don’t need anyone to remind me or help me follow through. But other things I need to do — and even want to do, or know to be valuable — simply won’t happen unless I have a deadline that involves another pair of eyes. Keep your mind on the areas where you could use some help.

A related issue is how you set limits for yourself. Do you have an easier time moderating your portions of a treat food, like ice cream or cookies? Or are you better off just striking some things from the menu permanently? Personally, I’m a moderator — I’d flip out if someone told me I couldn’t have candy anymore. That would be simply unacceptable. I’ve had to establish some rules and rituals around the way I enjoy it, but I accept those rules as a way to enjoy it without guilt. Rubin is an abstainer — for some things, she finds it easier to go without than to try to impose moderation. Read more at her site.

Image from Cat Island by Dan Berry.