Do you already know that change is not that simple?
Most summers I go visit my family doctor for a check-up, and she asks me about my physical activity. Until a couple of years ago, I avoided telling her how under-active I was most of the year. I know my doctor asks about physical activity because it is important to health and wellbeing, but those weren’t very useful conversations; I was already aware that physical activity was important, and having that conversation with my doctor didn’t help me to become more active, because follow-up and support were missing.
What I notice is that we often approach lifestyle improvements as a simple set of action steps. By contrast, lifestyle changes – like physical activity and diet – are complex issues that can be affected by multiple factors, like motivation, knowledge, skill, finances, time, current state of physical and mental health, habits, and thought patterns. When any one of those factors pose a challenge, the affected person will need support to help them move forward; the more challenges, the more support needed – no amount of scolding will help.
How do those factors affect lifestyle change? When I chose a year-and-a-half ago to increase my physical activity, I had many advantages; by contrast, when I adopted an active lifestyle as a young adult many of these factors were challenges:
Recently, I was motivated to become more active, because I had experienced physical and mental benefits from exercise in the past – but when I was younger I didn’t have this motivation, because physical activity only seemed like hard work to me.
Last year, I was confident in my skill to work my body appropriately, because of past experience – but as a beginner when I was a young adult, lack of knowledge made working out intimidating.
In 2018 I had the benefit of an intermediate fitness level, because of a weekly fitness class that I had been attending; I already had momentum toward active living, and I didn’t suffer much joint or muscle pain after I worked out – but when I was a young adult starting to work out I had to find the energy to start moving after I had been inactive for so long, and it was painful to experience the muscle aches on days after I worked out.
I am lucky that I my mental health always allowed me to be interested in self-care – what I understand from those who do struggle with depression is that some days it is very hard to find the energy to invest in self-care activities, from eating, to showering, not to mention getting up and moving.
A year-and-a-half ago, my advantages positioned me well to become active again. Even so, I needed support to help me work past my challenges:
I had some knowledge of exercises I could perform, but I didn’t know enough options to keep me from getting bored, or to help me continue to improve as my muscles grew used to the exercises I was performing.
I struggled to make time for exercise, so I was looking for strategies to make the process as efficient as possible, from short work-outs, to minimizing travel, to fitting in the work-out before my morning shower so I only had to shower and groom once each day.
I discovered an often-overlooked challenge: self-sabotaging thoughts. I had to recognize and let go of an all-or-nothing perfectionist attitude, and instead aim for consistency; I needed self-forgiveness and grace when I wasn’t perfect. I also needed to let go of self-blame for any of my challenges; when I blamed myself, it cut down my motivation to keep trying. When I learned to remove the good/bad labels from my circumstances, when I learned to see challenges objectively rather than as my fault, support empowered me to create change, rather than feeling like I was weak for needing the support.
I couldn't do it on my own. I started from an advantaged position, but I needed support to succeed; someone who doesn’t have the same privileges or advantages will need more support than I did. When anyone – medical professional, family member, friend, neighbour, or society in general – suggests to a struggling person that the solution to lifestyle change is a recipe, we also pass judgement, and reinforce self-criticism and shame. If we really want to help a person to succeed, it’s time to change that conversation. It’s time to have the compassion to recognize that everybody is doing the best they can with the circumstances and the resources they have, and it’s time find the humility to admit that simple solutions only address part of any issue. It’s time to get curious about full spectrum needs and challenges, to explore possibilities and options, knowing that ongoing support is an important part of success.
If you are struggling to figure out what options and supports are available publicly or privately, please call to arrange a conversation. I know that you’re a complex work in progress, just like I am. And on our journeys of growth, I firmly believe…