My friend Nicole claimed for years that she hated exercising. "I have an allergy to sweat," she would say with a laugh. While her gallows humor was charming, I worried about her. Her excess pounds and couch-potato life were causing aching knees and other health problems, but she seemed determined to stay stuck in her easy chair.
That was then. This is now. For the past 6 months, Nicole has been exercising regularly for--not just one--but two hours a day. What happened?
Nicole confided that her turnaround began with a routine visit to her doctor. She was shocked to discover that she had gained 12 pounds in the previous year. Moreover, she was coping with some of the problems of aging. "I realized that I couldn't do anything about getting older," she told me, "but I could do something about my weight. I had a choice, and I decided to lose 60 pounds."
Nicole has now lost 30 of those pounds. She feels lighter, and yes, even younger. She attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings weekly to keep on track.
The realization that she had a choice was what propelled Nicole forward and made her willing to change. Awareness of choice helps people grab an oar and start rowing toward a chosen destination instead of just drifting wherever the river goes. Don't get me wrong. Drifting can be a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But when it comes to habit change, the decision to steer is critical to your future success.
My friend Maria quit drinking but was tempted to relapse at a picnic with her former drinking crowd. She found the strength to stay sober in the awareness that she had a choice. She put it like this:
I remember vividly the moment of choice I faced once my friends had popped open a few beers; I could drink one beer and take the road I had been traveling that was so familiar and "safe." Or, I could not drink, and choose the "road less traveled" that was so scary and uncertain.
I don't know what made me choose the road less traveled, but I did. Perhaps the realization that I had a choice, and the small empowerment it gave me, solidified a deep commitment inside of me for abstinence. I have never had another drink in the 16 years since this choice was presented to me.
"Empowerment"--that's what the realization of choice can give you. According to research cited by Sheena Iyengar in The Art of Choosing, infants as young as 4 months enjoyed the power of choice to turn on music by their own volition. In adults, "neurons in the striatum...respond more to rewards that people or animals actively choose than to identical rewards that are passively received." Isn't it amazing that our very brain cells vibrate happily to our active choices?
As George Bernard Shaw said, "To be in hell is to drift, to be in heaven is to steer." If this is so, you can create a little bit of heaven for yourself right now by making a voluntary and deliberate choice to improve your life. Of course, that's not all there is to successful change, but the awareness of choice could be the first step towards willingness to start down the path.
(c) Meg Selig
I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009), reviewed here. For more on habit change, willpower, and healthy living, like me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter.
Maria's story. Selig, M. Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (2009). NY: Routledge, p. 22-23.
Iyengar, Sheena, The Art of Choosing (2010). NY: Twelve, p. 9.