Five Roadblocks to Changing Your Health – And What to Do Instead
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Are you hard on yourself? Are you a perfectionist? Do you get caught up in a dieting mentality? For those who desire to make lifestyle changes to improve health, sometimes mindset gets in the way most.
In this previous article, I talked about how building new habits is challenging. When we expect change to be easy, we can set ourselves up for disappointment or give up too quickly. But when we understand the process of change – and what barriers we might face – we might see setbacks as part of the process and decide to keep going.
In today’s article, I want to expand on what gets in the way of the changes we most desire regarding our nutrition, fitness, stress management, and other health habits that we try to implement.
When we understand what gets in the way, we can let go of habits that don’t serve and work to build new, healthy ones that last not just for a few days or weeks, but for a lifetime.
What Gets in the Way of Change?
Habits are ingrained behavior patterns. They are often unconscious or so automatic that we don’t need much awareness or mental energy to complete them. This automation is helpful when the habits are good – like brushing our teeth after we wake up or calling our mom on Sundays.
But when the habit is one that we want to stop or replace, it can be challenging to break the automation. And building new habits can be challenging as well. New habits take time, awareness, dedication, and consistency. Eventually, they will become easy and automatic, but the journey to get there isn’t always linear.
Let’s say you are working to build a new habit, such as being consistent with a strength training program, meeting your daily protein needs, or cooking more at home. You might face challenges along the way that derail you.
Healthy habit-building roadblocks include:
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Relying on willpower
- Starting with a big change
- Spending too much time in the mind
Let’s look at these roadblocks, how they get in the way of creating a habit, and tips to push through and keep going.
Perfectionism is a personality trait where one places impossibly perfect standards on themselves to please others. While we may think that perfectionist thinking leads to motivation and achievement, it makes it harder to reach your goals and distracts you from what is truly important in life.
The dark side of perfectionism is self-criticism, shame, stress, anxiety, procrastination, and low self-esteem. Perfectionist tendencies around appearance and food may be one driver of eating disorders.
Recognizing perfectionist traits is the first step to overcoming perfectionism. And the best antidote is self-compassion. Instead of focusing on what others think, self-compassion brings us back to our own needs.
According to researcher and compassion expert Kristin Neff, self-compassion includes kindness towards oneself, understanding that nobody’s perfect, and mindfulness to increase awareness and self-acceptance.
A helpful place to begin may be with a mindfulness practice. Many free meditation apps teach mindfulness where you observe, without judgment, your breath, body, and emotions.
You might have an all-or-nothing mentality about lifestyle habits and not even know it! This thinking is ingrained in our culture and perpetuated by the diet and fitness industries.
A fad diet is a perfect example of this type of thinking. You embark on a plan that promises to change your body and bring you happiness. You are motivated at the beginning and stick to a restrictive diet that is very different from your standard eating patterns.
Eventually, you physically can’t do it anymore, you experience some unanticipated stress, or your willpower runs out (more on willpower below). Then you quit. You swing in the other direction by overindulging or binging on all the foods you couldn’t eat on the plan. You feel guilty and hard on yourself for not completing what you set out to do. And eventually, you muster the energy to try again, returning to restriction.
All this swinging between extremes, between all in or doing nothing, is a hard way to live. It leads to obsession, more dieting, and results that are hard to sustain over time.
Instead, begin cultivating a growth mindset, where you learn from your experiences. If following a fad diet isn’t working, maybe another fad diet isn’t the answer. Perhaps you need to evaluate your experience and adjust your approach.
Practical ways to start finding your middle ground include keeping a journal, practicing self-compassion, and exploring adding new habits to your routine.
When we rely on willpower to make a change, we are depending on a finite resource. Willpower always runs out. We can white knuckle it for a while, but eventually, the body’s physiology will take over.
Instead of will, let’s rely on skill. Instead of overhauling the whole system in one day, begin to implement new skills or habits. For example, start your day with a protein-rich breakfast. Prioritizing breakfast helps balance your blood sugar and sets you up to make more nourishing food choices throughout the day.
Another example is to set out your workout clothes the night before. When you wake up, you see them, put them on, and are one step closer to the gym. It’s a simple habit to build that goes a long way.
Another helpful skill to rely upon when making changes is community. Connect with a community of people working on similar daily goals and habits. Community support helps with focusing on progress (not perfection), finding the middle ground, and continuing the path when challenges arise.
Consider the skills that you need to reach your target goals. Then work on making those skills into habits. It’s okay to start small, in fact, it’s preferable!
Starting Too Big
Are you one to bite off more than you can chew? Perfectionism, willpower, and all-or-nothing thinking play into this.
Let’s say your goal is to run your first marathon. Most of us don’t run 26 miles on the first training day. If we did, we almost certainly wouldn’t make it and give up. We might throw in the towel and not try again.
Instead, start small. Pick a smaller goal that you can accomplish right away. Perhaps it’s running one mile. Or start even smaller, maybe it’s walking for just five minutes. Work on building the habit of getting outside for a walk/run. That’s the hardest part. When the initial pattern is in place, it’s easy to begin adding time.
If you start with a smaller goal, you can achieve easily, you’ll build self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. It motivates you to keep going for each of the steps to come.
We’ve been talking a lot about mindset and reframing how we think about how to build new habits and create change. But sometimes we are too much in our heads! All the thinking about how to change old habits, how to measure fitness progress, how to set goals, and even how to start can be a distraction from taking action.
Instead, a helpful practice might be getting out of your head and into your body. Let me give a couple of examples.
When you exercise, tune into your body. How do you feel during your workout? How do you feel after? What physical sensations do you notice? What changes do you experience in your mood and energy afterwards?
When you eat a meal, regardless of what your mind thinks of the meal, tune into your body. Use your senses. How does the food smell, taste, and look? What body sensations do you experience when eating? Does it give you pleasure? After the meal, what shifts do you notice in your hunger, energy, mood, or symptoms?
By tuning into the body, you can explore what works for you instead of what outside influences are telling you. It’s empowering, increases awareness, and helps to fine-tune the habits that serve your well-being over the long term.
It’s possible to face many of these roadblocks to habit change without even knowing it! They are ingrained in our culture and are found in mainstream messaging around nutrition, fitness, and wellness. Once we are aware of mindset patterns that may be holding us back, we open to a new way of being with ourselves that is gentle, compassionate, personalized, and ultimately effective at supporting the changes we desire to see in our lives.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.