Picture this: You've just left work, determined to go to the gym on the way home, but you haven't had a bite to eat since lunch. You're famished, and you're thinking, 'How am I going to get through my workout when my tank's on empty?' You resist the first newsagent you pass, but at that next garage, you stop for a Mars bar. Well, I'll burn off these calories in the gym, you justify, and anyway, it's not good for you to work out when you're this hungry.
If that scenario doesn't describe you, don't start polishing your halo just yet. Most of us have at least one bad health habit. And usually, we like to keep it brushed under the carpet because, hey, aren't we living a pretty healthy lifestyle? Aren't we allowed just one vice, be it chocolate, a few pints a night, or fish & chips on a Friday?
Well, yes and no. I'm not saying you have to live like a saint to be healthy, but I'm also aware that lots of people fool themselves into thinking their vice is OK because they work out a lot.
Isn't working out enough?
Staying fit does reduce your risk of lots of diseases, including heart disease, strokes, adult-onset diabetes, and even cancer, but it is not a magic bullet. If you want to live long and strong, you might need to take a good look in the mirror and assess how much you really love that vice!
In my energy management coaching, I hear justifications and excuses constantly. I help people get past those excuses to the choices that will give them the tremendous levels of energy they are looking for. Below I'm going to share with you the top FIVE bad health habits that I see regularly, and my advice for getting them out of your life permanently.
The sugar fix
This is the number one bad habit that saps energy, depresses mood and causes weight gain. Many of my clients fall into a sugar trap regularly. Whether it's swapping a decent breakfast for a sugary cereal bar. Or trying to beat late-afternoon lethargy with a Kit-Kat.
Anytime (repeat, anytime) you eat refined sugar, it causes your blood sugar levels to go above optimal levels (hyperglycaemia). This feels great for about 10-15 minutes. But then blood sugar crashes (hypoglycaemia), which results in the loss of concentration and stamina. This happens because your body releases insulin when blood sugar gets too high.
Why? Because hyperglycaemia damages your blood vessels. Most people don't understand this. After years of blood sugar yo-yoing, the body sometimes stops bothering to release insulin until blood sugar is extremely high. It's called adult-onset, or Type II diabetes. It can then only be controlled with a strict no-sugar (and no alcohol) diet.
No fun, and so avoidable by taking it easy on the sugar now. Note I said 'taking it easy', not giving up cake and chocolate altogether.
To kick the 'sugar fix' habit:
No one can say how much sugar is OK for you. Nutritionists generally agree that you can safely allow 10% of your calorie intake as sugar, alcohol and junk food. About 200 calories per day for an average person, 300 for an active athlete. But that's ONLY IF the rest of your diet contains plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and pulses. To give you some perspective, a Mars bar has 295 calories.
- Read labels. Sugar is everywhere, often in the guise of corn syrup or glucose syrup. And even 'organic raw cane sugar' is still sugar!
- Don't keep sugary snacks in the house - for obvious reasons.
- Get organised and plan your diet, including healthy snacks. The reality is that if you want a low-sugar diet, you need to shop for your fruit, veggies, bread and other fresh stuff at least once a week.
- Keep no-sugar energy bars in your desk, your car, gym bag or handbag, ready for your next snack-attack. Try Fruitas, Fruitina, Wallaby and Taste of Nature bars. All yummy and sweet, with no added sugar.
- Set yourself a target of so many days per week without your favourite sugar. When you've substituted something healthier often enough, it will become an easy habit to keep (honest!).
A term coined after seeing the umpteenth client who ate virtually nothing during stressful working days, only to arrive home starving to consume over half their daily calorie intake between 8 and 10 pm. Dietary disaster! This pattern not only makes you gain weight and increases cholesterol, it means you're not consuming sufficient calories when your body really needs them: during the working day when your metabolic rate (the rate at which you bum calories) is highest. If this describes you to a T, here are some suggestions:
- As above, get organised about your eating! Take plenty of healthy snacks to work. Also, take a healthy packed lunch if you've no decent canteen - or if you tend to skip lunch. In addition to the fruit and energy bars already mentioned, you can snack on nuts and seeds. 'Fry 'Munchy Seeds' made by Lawncourt Harvest Ltd_
- Set your stopwatch for snack breaks, or make appointments in Outlook that will beep at you.
- For three days, keep a diary of what you eat when during the day. Add up or just estimate the number of calories you eat before dinner time. It should be at least 70% of your total daily intake, and ideally 80%.
Too much alcohol
About 40% of men and 20% of women in the UK exceed their recommended alcohol limit of 21 and 14 units per week, respectively. Its easily done, given that:
- Beer is generally consumed in pints which represent 2 - 2.5 units each.
- Wine is becoming increasingly alcoholic, and one bottle of 13.5% abv (alcohol by volume) wine is 10 units. Most clients assume bottles of wine contain 6 units.
- A pub measure of spirits is 25 ml (40% abv) and is one unit. The drinks we pour at home are often doubles, at least. Just try measuring out 50ml of water and pouring it into a drinking glass to see how small it looks.
If you want to curb your drinking, try the following:
- Decide how much you're going to allow yourself to drink each week, and keep a diary of intake for a few weeks until you get a feel for a drinking pattern that is within safe limits.
- Decide beforehand how much you'll drink at parties and events.
- Start a party with a soft drink to quench your thirst, no matter what the peer pressure.
- Drink water or soft drinks in between alcoholic drinks.
- Memorise the calorie content of drinks as a deterrent.
White wine - dry (175 ml glass): 116
Red wine (175 ml glass): 119
Spirits (per pub measure/25 ml): 48 kcal
Baileys Irish Cream (37 ml): 129 kcal
1 pint/550ml of:
Stella Artois: 256 kcal
John Smith's: 170 kcal
Guinness: 210 kcal
View the Free Alcohol Infographic
Your easy at-a-glance-guide to various drinks, spirits and cocktails
I'm sure this bad gym habit applies to lots of you, and I know I've been guilty of it from time to time.
It's about going through the motions of your workout, not getting the benefits you kid yourself you are. You don't push yourself, cut corners, or simply coast through tuned into the gym TV or your iPod.
It happens when you're:
- tired (possibly even over-trained)
- bored and in need of a change of exercise routine
- in a negative mood (angry, depressed)
Breaking out of an exercise rut
To combat this one, or to re-invigorate your workouts, try one or more of these:
- Every 6-12 months, write down your weekly exercise routine and ask yourself if it looks motivating. If not, it's time for a re-design, maybe something completely new.
- Every few months, dig out that heart-rate monitor (or borrow one) and use it for a few workouts, to see if your perceived level of effort is reflected in your actual heart rate (see below).
- Treat yourself to a few sessions with a personal trainer to learn some new fitness tricks and get some mega-motivation
- Buy or borrow a new fitness DVD, or fitness book for some inspiration.
An aerobic workout is considered to be 60-85% of maximum heart rate, with most people feeling comfortable in the 70-75% range for a 45-minute workout.
Ultimately, you need to work at a challenging but sustainable pace - one where you are not accumulating too much lactate. This will allow you to get the most from your workouts.
A simple way to test this is when you can say about seven words before needing to take a breath. As if you were chatting to someone. If it's fewer than that, you could slow down a bit and still work hard enough to get cardiovascular benefits. If you can manage lots more words, it's likely you're not working hard enough.
Poor posture and flexibility
I might sound like a boring old relative reminding you of this, but poor posture is a very typical bad health habit. It can have a massive impact on your ability to function as you age. So many clients have back, neck and shoulder pain that is totally avoidable.
Just 10 minutes a day stretching will help develop an awareness of your body alignment.
When you're short on time, the stretching part of your workout tends to go out the window. But I urge you not to neglect it. It's vital for injury prevention and for maintaining joint mobility.
As an added benefit, correct posture actually boosts your mood and self-esteem.
Here are some excellent ways to improve your posture:
- Try some yoga and/or pilates. Both of these disciplines will teach you proper posture and body alignment. Even if you think this sort of stuff is not for you, just try it for six weeks and see if you can feel the difference in how you sit, stand and move.
- Learn the Alexander Technique - a way to sit, stand and move around with as much balance and the least amount of muscular tension possible.
- Make stretching a priority in your workout routine - after your warm-up. YouTube has some great resources, or buy the classic book Stretching by Bob Anderson.
- Stand in front of a full-length mirror and observe your posture from the front and side. Do you hold your shoulders back and down, your spine straight, and your head up and in line with your spine?
- Change your screen saver to 'Body check' to remind you to keep your posture as just described, plus your feet flat on the floor or footrest.
- Set a mobile reminder for 'Great posture today', or put this on your fridge until it becomes second nature.
You'll thank me when you're 80!