Kelli LaPage, MS, ATC, FASNY Health and Wellness Committee
Back in August, I was honored to be a part of the FASNY Convention as a member of the Health and Wellness Committee. I always look forward to these events as an opportunity to catch up with members and this year was no exception.
This year I was surprised at how many of my conversations held a common thread. Many of these conversations turned into a confession on what the person was doing “wrong” with their health. In fact, no less than four attendees told me that they had a donut during the morning meeting on the first day. I began to wonder if someone had slapped a “Donut Police” sign on my back when I wasn’t looking.
In each of these conversations, I turned the topic to ask what they had been doing to support their health goals and was quick to correct the perception that the Wellness Committee (and myself) were walking around judging what everyone was eating.
One gentleman challenged that statement, however, and said he recalled a Wellness Committee member standing up during the opening remarks and telling the group that they needed to stop serving donuts at their meetings. He looked at me and said, “I just assumed that’s what you were here to do.” My mind started racing.
How had this message become what was perceived in this organization? That somehow wellness meant you had to give up things to have any hope of being “healthy.” That interpretation, while definitely not “my message,” is what many fear about wellness: that they will be judged and they will be deprived. I spent time talking with each individual about their own goals and concerns and stressed that they hold the key to their choices.
If you choose to have a donut – have a donut – but look somewhere else to make an investment in your health. No judgment – it’s just a choice.
I brought up these conversations during our Wellness Committee meeting at Convention and we talked about how to dispel so many of these myths around wellness. I joked how attached FASNY members seemed to be to their donuts. We had to make that a clear part of their message. That’s when our fearless leader, Dr. Jacki Moline said, “That’s right – It’s not about the donuts.”
And so, our new Wellness Committee theme was born: It’s not about the donuts.
Why Is Change So Hard?
Our physiology makes us resistant to change of any kind, even change that our knowledge and experience tell us is “good for us.” This is what makes habit change feel so overwhelming.
Over 50 percent of our adult actions are rooted in habit, deeply ingrained in our subconscious. That means that we go into “autopilot” for at least half of our daily actions.
Habits are, primitively speaking, the brain’s way of simplifying our life. Without the formation of habits, we would be overwhelmed by the constant barrage of choices we have each day. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as “decision exhaustion.” Decision exhaustion is a physiological and mental state of measurable effects that occur in response to constant decision making/continued choice. What is interesting is that decision exhaustion occurs regardless of whether choices are seen as positive or negative, simple or complex, healthy or not healthy.
Your brain has one goal – simplify this process and put as much into autopilot as possible. Habit research shows that it takes at least 30 days of mindful, repetitious behavior to plant the roots for a new habit. After about 70 days, autopilot kicks in.
It takes over 300 days for old behavior pattern triggers to lose their impact. So, it takes a lot of work to form a habit. Your brain is not going to let it go without a fight.
We are hard-wired to resist change through the same primitive pathways that govern our fight or flight mechanism. Studies have shown that resistance to change that involves deprivation or depletion is the strongest of all. This is why the statement “don’t eat that donut” may appear really simple. But, if eating a donut has been a part of every morning since you were a kid or a part of the gathering of a certain group of individuals (say your FASNY events) for decades, your brain will fight you to hold on. This is not weakness nor laziness. It is being human.
If It’s Not about the Donuts … What Is It About?
It is about what is important to you. Not what is important to your spouse or your mother, your doctor or your coworker. It is about what you stand for, what you value and who you want to be.
Without clarity of what is important, we just keep trying on other people’s actions (their suggestions and tips and instructions) without matching them to our own needs, wants, goals and circumstances.
The actions you choose – the additions you choose for your health – must align with what is important to you. Will cutting back on the donuts help your health? Maybe, maybe not. Because it is a part of a larger picture. Will quitting smoking benefit your health? Probably. But, if smoking is serving as a coping mechanism for something else (as it usually is), you might just replace it with other unhealthy mechanisms or have outcomes that are equally detrimental to your health.
While both of these “quits” may enhance your health on some level, if you are not ready and willing to undertake them – or they do not align with what is currently important to you – they will not lead you to your goal. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of healthy investments we can choose every day – why do we fixate on the ones that we are not ready/able or committed to change?
It really is not about the donuts. It is just about starting … somewhere.
The “It’s Not about the Donuts” series is dedicated to supporting your individual health journey through healthy additions, not overwhelming subtractions, to your daily life. Research shows it is much easier to create a new habit than break an old one but the two can go hand in hand.
If our minds fight “removal of a habit,” why not look to add healthy behaviors onto existing behaviors. Through time, repetition and incremental successes, you will not only recognize benefits from these painless “additions.” More often, you will see that through the additions some “subtractions” begin to occur without any effort on your part. No one said change was easy. But it can be simple.
In each issue of The Volunteer Firefighter, we will cover incremental additions you can make to the “pillars of wellness” in your life. These pillars include:
- Nutrition (fuel)
- Movement (activity)
- Rest/Recovery (sleep and healing)
- Physiological Health (management of disease states and injury processes)
- Spiritual Health (relationships, joy, sense of purpose and mental health)
- Financial Health (job satisfaction, insurance, savings, etc.)
None of these pillars exist in isolation. Just like any other structure, if you start chipping away at the existing composition (behaviors and choices) of your pillars without fortifying them with new, stronger, healthier building blocks, you risk collapse of your “structure.”
In the coming months, let’s support each other by adding to instead of taking away: through building up, not tearing down. And while sharing our knowledge and experience with each other can provide ideas that may work for someone else, recognize that we are all unique and what works for us will not likely work for others.
Kelli LaPage is a licensed athletic trainer and president and founder of WellTrail Inc., a national health and injury management firm based out of Baldwinsville. She studied pre-med at Washington University in St. Louis, earning her bachelor’s in biology and psychology. LaPage earned a master’s in exercise science, specializing in sports medicine and orthopedic rehab, at Syracuse University. For the past 13 years, she has been developing and delivering customized training and programming options for corporations of all sizes and demographics relating to their workplace wellness, health and injury management needs. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org