I went to the eye doctor recently for my annual exam (which happens more like every 14 months), so I could renew my contact lens subscription. I first learned I needed corrective eye assistance when I was in middle school. The nurse came to science class and tested everyone’s vision and hearing. I remember realizing I wasn’t acing the eye exam, as well as the embarrassment that accompanied the fact my peers that were in line behind me were privy to the fact I wasn’t acing my eye exam. “Step back a bit,” she instructed the other 12- and 13- year olds as she had me try one more time to read the letters on the screen.
I was a bookworm as a child, though not inactive. When I wasn’t reading or listening to music, I enjoyed playing outside, usually alone, occasionally teaching myself gymnastics moves. With the exception of softball, sports weren’t encouraged, and since Youtube didn’t exist yet, I was left to my imagination when it came to athletic endeavors. I didn’t spend time developing my vision, and it could be argued I inherited a propensity for weak eyes from both sides of my family—my dad and my mom’s brothers were all bespectacled, so between the hours (and hours) spent reading and my genes, my diagnosis of near sightedness wasn’t exactly surprising.
My vision got progressively worse through my late teens, stabilizing as I entered adulthood. A few years ago, after I had successfully improved my feet and dramatically reduced the size of my bunions, I wondered if corrective lenses were a bit like orthotics—necessary for the short term, but with the right intervention, perhaps the dependency on them could lessen. I began incorporating eye exercises into my training and practicing looking out into the distance, curious if practicing the skill of focusing on objects far away could make a difference.
I regularly have conversations with clients who struggle to maintain consistency. They want to do more, but don’t know how or where to start. Despite my regular reminders that they don’t have to do forty minutes of exercise to make a change in their physical abilities, “just three to five minutes a day,” I tell them, “will make a difference in how you feel and your body awareness throughout the day,” people struggle, unable to commit or prioritize their time to make room for extra movement.
On the other end of the spectrum are my clients with very real conditions, the ones with MS or undiagnosed connective tissue disorders, or who have depression/anxiety/trauma, who are committed to living. Part of living, they understand, is being able to use their bodies to their fullest capacities, and so exercise/fitness/movement becomes part of their daily lives, even though it’s hard and uncomfortable. These individuals are the silent inspirations, the ones who celebrate when they do a perfect squat and who are excited when they have the grip strength to open a water bottle. While they aren’t celebrated on Instagram as “fitspo,” their dedication to being as strong and capable as possible despite their circumstances is an inspiration.
What makes people commit to consistency? Obviously, there needs to be some sort of reward for the behavior that keeps people engaged enough to want to perform the behavior again, whether the reward is emotional or physical. “I feel amazing while performing 100 kettlebell swings,” said no one, ever, but people do notice they feel calmer or stronger or more present after the hard work of swinging a kettlebell is done. This could be thought of as a delayed response to a strong stimulus. For some clients, the response is more immediate. They ache or feel discomfort in some place. By focusing attention and providing a stimulus that deflects their focus from the area that aches or is painful, the pain disappears. Movement, both in the form of aerobic exercise and in the form of muscular force have an analgesic effect. The absence of pain is positive feedback, and is often enough to get people to perform movement snacks or homework that lasts 5-10 minutes a day, at least for a little while, until the pain goes away.
Making Long Term Change:
I was vegetarian for a few years in my late twenties, and at 29, went fully vegan. The benefits of cutting out dairy were profound. I recovered faster from my workouts, was less sore, and experienced a significant reduction in symptoms related to inflammation. I felt like I had stumbled upon an eating routine that could sustain me for the rest of my life.
Until I began reading about the effects of omega 3s on brain health. Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids that have neuroprotective properties, specifically against neurodegenerative and neurological disorders. They are found primarily in fish, and while there are other foods that have them (namely chia seeds and flax seeds), I don’t always remember to put chia seeds and flax seeds in everything. Another food that has decent amounts of omega 3s is eggs.
Why did I suddenly care about omega 3s and the brain? Parkinson’s runs in my family (my maternal grandmother died from it and my maternal great-grandmother had dementia), and I care about my ability to learn and remember things throughout my lifetime. I use my brain as much as I use my body, and my long term goal is to be able to use both until I (hopefully) drop dead. Diets low in omega 3s are linked to memory deficiency and difficulty learning. Since I have never cared for fish, I added eggs back in my diet, hopeful that consuming eggs 3-4 times a week would be enough to keep my brain healthy.
*It’s worthwhile to note sleep also appears to play a role in memory retention. Sleep deprivation is associated with reduced clearance of beta-amyloid, a waste product that accumulates in the brain’s interstitial fluid; some scientists believe the accumulation of beta-amyloid is the primary cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
Clarifying your Why:
My why is clear to me. I take a lot of pleasure out of life. I prioritize learning, enjoying the environment around me, and my independence. These things are made possible by my brain and my body. My desire to climb steep hills and frolic on rocks down at the beach is the reason it’s not difficult for me to motivate myself to lift heavy weights and jump on top of boxes. My love of movement as a way to express myself makes it easy to do mobility work, even though it’s uncomfortable sometimes, and my curiosity about how I can move more efficiently and remain injury free enables me to slow down, focus, and feel regularly.
Because my long term brain health is such an instrumental part of my life’s why, I was willing to make a change in my diet to include a food I don’t really like, but I also don’t have a strong aversion to. I plan on being around for a while, and I want to make the most of the time I have while I am here, so cultivating a diet that may reduce the risk of dementia and assists in my ability to establish new neural connections benefits me over the course of my life time.
What if you or your clients struggle with committing to long term change even though the desired behavior is “better” or “healthier"?
There are number of things that fall into this category, not just exercising more or altering eating habits. Long term changes that impact a person’s life can include things like making space for self care, spending time in nature, reading more, decreasing screen time, and slowing down.
One way to approach committing to change is clarifying both long term goals and the underlying reason for those goals. Do you have a pen and paper handy? If so, set a timer for five minutes. Write down a long term goal and explain, in detail, why you want to do it.
When the timer goes off, read what you wrote out loud to yourself. Does it stir something up in you by making you excited, passionate, or ready to commit in some way? If so, you are on the right track. Fold that piece of paper up and place it somewhere that’s easily accessible, like your wallet or your laptop bag. On a separate piece of paper, make two circles at the top of the page. In one of the circles, write your goal. In the other circle, write down your current state.
For instance, before I made a change in my diet, one circle might have been “omega 3s for brain health.” The second circle might have been, “vegan diet.” Once you have established the two top circles, make one more circle below the top two circles and between them. It will look something like the graphic below.
In the lower circle, write “behaviors.” This simply reflects your actions. These actions will either move you towards your goal or towards your current state.
Between the “behavior” circle and the “goal” circle, draw an arrow. Label that arrow “towards.” This represents the changes you make that move you towards your goal.
Between the “behavior” circle and the “current state” circle draw an arrow. This represents behavior that keeps you moving towards your current state.
Spend some time thinking (and writing) about what actions you currently do that keep you moving towards your current behavior. What actions would you have to do to work towards your desired goal? Are they in line with your why? And even though the new actions might be challenging, is your why worth it?
There is a body of research that suggests self reflection is a powerful tool for learning. Taking time to reflect on your current state, your current actions, where you want to go, and the steps needed to get there is a way to shift your perspective and mindset towards the desired behavior. Change is hard. There will be set backs along the way, and that’s okay. As long as you remember (and occasionally re-read) your why and continue making steps towards your long term goals, acknowledge the set backs and move on. If the set backs are beginning to happen more frequently and no matter how often you read your why, you can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm or passion to implement a change in behavior, it’s possible you need to re-evaluate your why. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Life changes or perspective changes result in a shift in what’s important. If this happens, spend time re-writing your why and see what comes up for you.
Eggs and Eyes:
What does any of this have to do with eyes, you might be wondering? During my annual eye exam, after assessing the image of my eye and telling me that my cholesterol, blood pressure, and eyes were extremely healthy, the doctor looked at me and said, “your curvature has changed.” When you are nearsighted, either the shape of the cornea is too curved for the length of the eyeball or the eyeball is too long. My myopia is related to a curvy cornea; altering the shape of the cornea means it’s less curved in relation to the length of the eye ball. “I don’t know what you are eating or doing, but whatever it is, keep doing it.”
I mentioned earlier that I implemented eye exercises a few years ago, which has helped with my ability to focus more quickly. However, the biggest change since my last eye exam was the consistent consumption of eggs, a food that not only has the omega 3s needed for brain health and cognitive function, but also contains a carotenoid called lutein. Research suggests consumption of lutein is associated with a number of beneficial effects, especially for eye health. Lutein is available in an array of foods, including fruits and vegetables, as well as egg yolk, so eating eggs isn’t the only way to get more lutein in your diet. However, since improving my vision wasn’t the reason I changed my diet, the reduction in my prescription was a pleasant additional benefit.
That, perhaps, is one of the biggest benefits to having a why that is clear and has a deeper, intrinsic meaning—the change in behavior required to accomplish the desired goal often improves other areas of your life, accidentally. These improvements, whether they are emotional, physical, or a combination of both, are reminders that the “new” behavior is worthwhile. This establishes a positive feedback loop, making the new behavior easier and easier to do, until eventually, it becomes habit.
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