There are some great lessons that children can teach us, and even at 4 months of age my son is teaching me one: the power of emotional agility.
On a daily basis infants experience several emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, interest, frustration, pain – often in the space of a few hours and sometimes minutes! What I notice, however, is that their emotions are not held onto - they are fluid. I mean, have you ever seen an infant hold a grudge or stay upset after its needs have been met?
I on the other hand am not always so fluid with my emotions….and I know I am not alone.
How often do we disagree with a friend, family member or spouse and hold onto that emotion of frustration or disappointment or hurt for hours, sometimes days? How common is it for us to dwell and ruminate about how someone reacted to us at work, how we behaved in a certain situation, about something we said or wish we had said and so on? In the river of life there is a continuous stream of emotions, but we don’t always let them flow (especially the negative ones).
The flow of our emotions can often be obstructed and slowed to a trickle; sometimes the flood gates are opened and a torrent rushes through us. Emotional agility is the ability to fully feel and accept our emotions, while remaining flexible and able to move away from beliefs and feelings that keep us stuck in the past.
So how can we increase our emotional agility?
To become emotionally agile, we first need to give ourselves permission to experience and feel what we are feeling. Research shows us that avoiding our feelings can impact our health – diminishing our wellbeing and creating symptoms of stress like headaches. One study conducted by psychologists from Harvard found that suppressing emotions may even increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
So whatever emotions are welling up within us - positive or negative - let us feel them! Our emotional agility depends on us feeling these sometimes difficult emotions, but also involves us letting them go since studies have demonstrated a link between unhappiness and dwelling on negative emotions and events.
Another way we can let our emotions flow is to define them. It sounds odd, but research shows that when we can differentiate our emotions using an expanded emotional vocabulary we are less overwhelmed by stress and are less susceptible to unhealthy emotion-regulation strategies such as binge drinking and eating or aggression. This same research reveals that when children are taught this broad knowledge of emotion words their social behavior and academic performance in school improve.
Write it out
I’ve previously written about the health benefits of journaling. With regard to emotional agility, research shows that people who write about emotionally charged episodes are healthier both physically and mentally. Writing allows us to gain new perspectives on what our feelings mean (or don’t mean!) and can remind us that emotions are temporary and fleeting and not essential part of our being. Using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand” can help detach yourself from your feelings, which can free you from rumination and lets you move forward.
A mindfulness practice often includes the practice of equanimity, or non-judgmental awareness and acceptance, which can also enhance our emotional agility. Maintaining an intentional, non-judgmental awareness toward our thoughts and emotions remind us that it’s okay to have negative feelings and thoughts, that we don’t have to fight them or judge them and that we can let them go.
In a mindfulness practice the breath is an essential tool, which can help us manage difficult emotions. Taking a breath triggers our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, reducing our blood pressure, muscle tension and getting us out of the fight-or-flight state that emotions can often provoke.
Whether it’s a small disagreement with your spouse or a yearlong grudge toward a family member or friend, unresolved conflict negatively impacts our physical health. The good news: studies have found that the act of forgiveness can lower the risk of heart attack, improve cholesterol levels and sleep, and reduce blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Start today and offer compassion and empathy to those who have wronged you and to yourself.
Take in the good
A final way to enhance our emotional agility is to take in the good. I wrote about this last month and in prior posts and it remains a savvy brain-science way to actively improve how we feel, helping us become more resilient, confident and happy.
Sure my 4 month old may not hold onto negative emotions because he is still forming his long term memory, but he is still a role model for us all. Ruminating on the negative usually just causes unnecessary suffering. May we all get to the root of what we’re feeling and express it to ourselves via writing and to others. May we take deep breaths when our emotions overwhelm us, forgive one another and intentionally savor the good in life - even the simple things like someone holding the door open for us. Or as my husband’s Grandpa used to say - success was going to the toilet, every morning.
*The term emotional agility was inspired by Susan David, PhD.'s book. If you'd like to take a quiz that measures your emotional agility check out her website!
"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." - Cicero
As a new Mom I've caught myself oscillating between the highs and lows of excitement and lethargy, joy and frustration. I relish in the moments as I play with my son and am captivated by his smiles and development. On the flipside I find myself focusing on the negative, feeling disappointment for not organizing the house like I had planned or not exercising during his nap or for not finishing personal projects. I guess it’s the new-Mom guilt, but I had an epiphany last night that this negativity may be symptomatic of a neglected gratitude practice.
Whether you’re a new parent or not, it’s tough to accomplish all that we’ve planned in a day (setting S.M.A.R.T. goals can help with that). But focusing on what we didn’t accomplish negates all that we did. Focusing on the negative causes us to forget all we have to be grateful for. This negative thinking is often unproductive, but it’s human nature. Have you heard of the negativity bias? Did you know that we're hardwired for negativity? Remembering this helps relieve my self-criticism and makes me want to do something about it. But what is there to do?
Practice Gratitude and Take in the Good.
I wrote about the power of gratitude in a prior post and the power is real. There are hundreds of studies that have documented the social, physical, and psychological benefits of gratitude. To name a few, gratitude:
Keeping a gratitude journal is one way to battle our negativity bias. Another one is to Take in the Good. This is a practice that I was introduced to in the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. From the author himself, here’s how to Take in the Good – in three simple steps:
1. Look for good facts and events and turn them into good experiences.
Pay attention to the good things in your world and inside yourself. This may include beautiful sunsets, songs on the radio, chocolate, the smell of a baby's hair, getting something done at work, finishing the dishes, an unexpected compliment, holding your temper, getting yourself to the gym, etc. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing.
2. Extend the experience in time and space.
Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild and short lived and that is fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else. Try to let it fill your body and be as intense as possible.
3. Sense that the good experience is sinking into you.
People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest. Others visualize things like a golden light sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt.
By intentionally savoring these experiences, it becomes easier to find the good throughout everyday life. This is because neurons that fire together wire together. Holding these good experiences in our awareness for just a little bit longer and more frequently literally rewires the brain, making it easier to find and feel them. Life's challenges and to-do's won't be going anywhere. That laundry will still need to be put away; that kettle bell will still be looking lonely. But taking in the good can lift our energy and spirits, help put challenges in perspective, and fill up our cup so we have more to offer to ourselves and others.
On a recent drive to work I listened to an amazing podcast by Michelle Mcquaid on positive leadership. In the program she described a new theory of Well-Being developed by positive psychologist Martin Seligman called PERMA that includes five elements essential to human well-being:
Of all of the elements, the power of positive emotion struck me. According to Mcquaid, positive emotions -- like awe, love, happiness, joy, excitement, enthusiasm, contentment, and gratitude -- have an impact that goes beyond bringing a smile to our faces. Positive emotions can help us perform better at work and help strengthen our relationships. These emotions stimulate the release of dopamine and serotonin, broaden our scope of attention and make us feel safe. They inspire cooperation, collaboration, creativity and the ability to look to the future with optimism and hope. Longitudinal studies have also shown that positive emotions are associated with increased longevity, can buffer stress and help aid pain management.
So…how can we experience more of these potent positive emotions? This is a question I occasionally ask myself since I find it easy to get lost in my mind focusing on the negative: the what if's, regrets, losses, and injustice. Part of this is habit, but part of it is due to our evolved "negativity bias", according to Dr. Rick Hanson. It helped our ancient ancestors survive -- ever on the lookout for the saber-toothed tiger and remembering which plants were toxic--, but can pose obstacles while trying to find the silver lining. So...the real question is how can we counteract our evolved negativity bias?
The moral of the story is that if we want to experience more positive emotions we need to practice some kind of regular mental and emotional exercise. Counteracting the brain’s negative bias is not a passive process. All that said, I do not write this to discount those of us who frequently experience negative emotions. Evidence that shows that a healthy balance of both is important in life. However, positive emotions are worth cultivating. I think that whatever emotions we feel, we should not try to suppress them, feel guilty or ashamed. We should feel them completely, try to trace their origins and choose action: accept them, move forward, seek support and acknowledge the complexity of life. Then, go find that list of the things that you enjoy and do something pleasurable!
Their genomes (the microbiome) endow us with physiologic capacities that we have not had to evolve on our own and thus are both a manifestation of who we are genetically and metabolically, and a reflection of our state of well-being. - Extending Our View of Self: the Human Gut Microbiome Initiative (HGMI)
Microbes are everywhere: in the soil, in the water, in the air. They’re also in and on our bodies and in fact outnumber our own cells by about 10 to 1! Under our armpits, in between our toes, in our mouth, urogenital tract, and in our intestines…microbes like bacteria and fungi have a bad rap for causing food poisoning, body odor and infections, but let’s put those unpleasantries aside and talk about the incredible microbes living inside our gastrointestinal system that are inexplicably connected to our health and well-being.
The human gut microbiome is estimated to consist of at least 10 trillion bacteria and archaea composed of about 1,100 prevalent species, with up to 400 species per individual. The gut microbial community has been called a “forgotten organ” with collective activity equal to organs as we know them. They interact primarily along our mucous membranes (skin that lines and protects the inside of our body: the inside of our nose and our urogenital, respiratory and digestive tracts), and one of their largest playgrounds is our digestive tract. In fact, cell densities in our colon are the highest recorded for any known ecosystem.
While the details of how these microbes interact with our body are still incompletely understood and under the microscope, research is beginning to reveal how much they influence our digestion, metabolism, immune system, and even our mental health. Since our gastrointestinal friends cannot be cultured in the lab, much of the research that tells us how integral they are is done by comparing life with and without them. For example, microbe‐free animals are more susceptible to infection, have reduced digestive enzyme activity, increased inflammation and require a greater caloric intake to sustain a normal body weight.
To cut a long story short, the gut microbiome:
This topic has consumed me the past few weeks and it’s taken much restraint to limit my research and ranting….The take-home point I want to share in this article is that our gut's microbiome is fantastically amazing and mysterious and its health ultimately affects our health….it’s a part of our body that we need to maintain harmony with. Now…how to do that? Well, below are some of the ways I've found through research. Of course this is not exhaustive as I am imperfect and the research is still underway. How do you maintain the health of your microbiome?
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Pre and Probiotocs have been getting a lot of publicity as of late and for good reason. I think of taking probiotics as the equivalent of restocking a pond with fish. Taking prebiotics, by contrast, is like nourishing and supporting the fish that are already in the pond.
Probiotics are considered “good” bacteria, often found in live or cultured foods like foods like yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented and pickled versions of veggies, sourdough bread, miso (fermented barley or soy or rice), tempeh (fermented soy), and kombucha.
Although more research is needed, some well-established effects of probiotics include:
Prebiotics are basically the foods that nourish our microbiome. I've already shared that I am all about fiber. Of the many reasons to love fiber is that it feeds our microbes! Unlike food rich in sugar and refined carbohydrates that break down in the small intestine, dietary fibers remain relatively intact all the way through the large intestine, providing a smorgasbord for our friendly microorganisms. A they feed, they, in turn, give off nutrients that nourish the cells that line our guts. Foods with prebiotics include chicory root, raw garlic, leeks, and onions, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and legumes.
Prebiotics have been shown to:
Say no to artificial sweeteners
Consumption of artificial sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose and aspartame) is considered safe, but emerging data should make us think again. Beyond their connection to weight gain (I will address this fascinating research in an upcoming post) a new study has found that that after 11 weeks, mice fed artificial sweeteners displayed glucose intolerance, a marker of risk for prediabetes and other metabolic disorders. This occurred via changes in the composition and function of the microbiome. In addition, preliminary data from the Personalized Nutrition Project has found that heavy consumers of artificial sweeteners have slightly elevated HbA1C levels (a long-term measure of blood sugar) compared with people who rarely or never consumed artificial sweeteners. I predict that this debate will intensify in the near future. Between now and then, let’s mitigate harm to our friendly gut microbiome and say no to diet beverages and avoid those colored packets when sweetening our coffee and tea. Also, read the ingredient list on your foods as they may be lurking in your gum, yogurt, flavored water, protein shakes, and powders, and cereal! More on controlling sugar cravings in blog posts to come.
Be smart about antibiotic use
Antibiotics deserve kudos for improving our health outcomes in the 20th century, but their usage also incurs risk. Beyond the rampant antibiotic resistance hurting our health care system at present, antibiotic use also hurts our gut’s microbiome. Unable to treat viral infections like the common cold or flu, antibiotics are commonly prescribed for bacterial infractions like skin, ear and bladder infections. They work by killing bacteria indiscriminately throughout the body. If you have an ear infection, for example, the antibiotic you take kills the good bacteria along with those causing you pain. Subsequently, you heal quickly but often incur antibiotic- associated disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhea and/or yeast infections.
There is a current push for doctors to hold back on prescribing antibiotics and instead inspiring patients to manage symptoms with pain and fever reducers (like (Tylenol, Aspirin, and Ibuprofen) and decongestants. Talk with your doctor when battling an infection and learn about your options.
It is becoming increasingly clear that our gut’s microbiome plays an important role in our health. An imbalanced microbiome can lead to the development of allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes…even cancer. All that being said, there doesn’t seem to be the “ideal” microbiome. Just as the ecosystems of forests, grasslands and coral reefs differ from place to place, so it is with microbiomes. Let’s keep our ears perked to the imminent research and recommendations and in the meantime, nourish our forgotten organ.
A fascinating side note is how we develop our microbiome. Its establishment begins immediately after birth and is influenced by the mode of delivery, infant diet (breast feeding is food for the microbiome too!), and medication. Babies born by Caesarean, a comparatively sterile procedure compared to a vaginal birth, do not acquire their mother’s microbes at birth. Their initial gut communities more closely resemble that of their mother’s (and father’s) skin, which is less than ideal and may account for higher rates of allergy, asthma and autoimmune problems in C-section babies. This is important to consider as rates of C-sections are up 50% since the mid 90’s with more than 1 in 3 infants being delivered by c-section in the U.S. For C-section deliveries research shows that infants being exposed to the vaginal microbiome of their mothers partially restores normal microbial colonization patterns to resemble vaginally delivered infants.
Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist, professor and researcher at Harvard Business School who studies body language and power dynamics. Specifically, she researches how people judge and communicate both power/competence and warmth/trustworthiness and how these judgments -- coming from others and from within ourselves -- can predict our life outcomes. For example, there is research that shows how the more a patient likes and connects with their doctor, the less likely they are to file a malpractice suit. Similarly, when we judge ourselves in a positive or negative light our failure or success often follows suit. Like I wrote before, our self-talk can influence our emotions, actions, and ultimately our personality.
We know that our minds can change our bodies, but can our bodies change our minds? According to Cuddy’s research the answer is yes! You may not feel powerful or you may lack confidence, but stand in one of her suggested power poses for 2 minutes and you will become more powerful physiologically – experiencing higher testosterone (our dominance hormone) levels and lower cortisol (our stress hormone) levels. As revealed in her talk below and research paper, posing in high-power positions causes neuroendocrine and behavioral changes that lead to increased feelings of power, and higher risk tolerance. Specifically, expansive, open postures that take up space project high power, whereas contractive, closed postures that minimize space by collapsing the body inward project low power.
By simply changing our posture, we can prepare our mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations. It can help improve our performance during a job interview, while speaking in public, and managing difficult conversations with others. As Cuddy describes, it’s not in what we say, but in our presence – our comfort, authenticity, passion, enthusiasm and confidence.
Cuddy's Ted Talk has truly made an impact in my life and brings me to tears, especially within her final comment that has more or less become my mantra: Don’t fake it until you make it, fake it until you become it! And as she encourages us all to try power posing, she also implores us to share this science with others since those who can benefit from it most are often those who feel chronically powerless due to a lack of resources, low hierarchical rank, or membership in a low-power social group. Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior, and our behavior changes our outcomes. Please share her talk and fake it until you become it! What do you want to become?
With Valentine ’s Day around the corner I thought about writing a post on maintaining heart health, but instead I am going to introduce the loving-kindness meditation. As I wrote in my post on setting S.M.A.R.T. resolutions, one of my goals has been to establish a meditation practice. My goal was start meditating 2 times per week and I have been more or less successful (more on this journey and another technique to firmly imprint new habits in my next post). To gain new tools/resources and help support this resolution I joined a meditation group on Meetup.com and was recently introduced to the loving-kindness meditation.
Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people. The general idea is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and imagine/think about specific wishes and aspirations for yourself and others. Traditionally, the wishes include (1) may the person be free from enmity; (2) may the person be free from mental suffering; (3) may the person be free from physical suffering; and (4) may the person take care of him/herself happily. Really, you can can meditate on whatever well-wishes that appear in your mind, like good health, success, patience, compassion, and the strength to be free of stress, anger, greed and envy.
The metta meditation starts with directing the phrases at yourself, then proceeds through a number of stages that differ in focus. (1) May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease; (2) direct the metta towards someone you feel thankful for or someone who has helped you; (3) focus on a neutral person; (4) focus on a “difficult” person; and eventually (5) focus on the entire universe: May all beings everywhere be well, safe, peaceful and at ease.
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, the loving-kindness meditation does far more than produce momentary good feelings. Over a nine week period, research showed that this type of meditation increased people's experiences of positive emotions and actually puts people on "trajectories of growth," leaving them better able to ward off depression and "become ever more satisfied with life." A review of the literature found that the loving-kindness meditation broadened attention, enhanced positive emotions, reduced pain, anger, and psychological distress and was associated with decreased stress-induced hormones. Another study showed that this meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, mindfulness and social support. This is all great news since research shows that people who experience frequent positive emotions live longer.
So, this Valentine ’s Day (and every day!) I invite you to join me in practicing the loving-kindness meditation. It can take as little as 5 minutes, 20 minutes or as long as an hour depending on how many well-wishes you want to send out into the universe. Below is a guided version that I found YouTube and enjoy.
Have you tried the loving-kindness meditation? What was your experience practicing it? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below and spread this message to those around you in an effort to enhance wellness for us all!
Available year-round here in California, cabbage is a perfect budget-friendly choice for salads, soups, stews and roasts. It’s also a superfood! A member of the Cruciferae family (along with kale, broccoli, collards, and brussels sprouts), there are over 400 cabbage varieties available with the three most familiar being green, red, Napa and Savoy.
With their high levels of antioxidants (vitamin C, manganese), polyphenols, and sulfuric compounds, cabbage plays a large role in reducing inflammation and in the prevention of cancer. This is some fantastic news since cancer is on the verge of overtaking heart disease as the No. 1 cause of death. Cabbage contains a variety of nutrients of potential benefit to our stomach and intestinal linings and those which help regulate our microbiome (more on this fascinating topic in a future post!). Finally, their high fiber content helps to lower our cholesterol and aids in our achieving a healthy weight!
I can go on and on…..but I will stop. Per the research, it is suggested that adults aim for at least 5 weekly servings of cruciferous vegetables. So now....how to add more cabbage (and other cruciferous veggies) into our diet??
Every Saturday Albert and I visit out local farmer’s market and cabbage is always on the menu. Below are my three go-to cabbage recipes plus one I would like to make more of. Try these babies out and let me know how you like ‘em! And please, share with me in the comments section below YOUR favorite cabbage recipes! I'm all ears!
Roasted Pork & Cabbage
I made this recipe up and therefore have never recreated it exactly, but it's OK since every time I make it again it still blows my mind! (Just make sure not to overcook the tenderloin!)
Emeril Lagasse’s Chipotle Slaw
This recipe accompanied in his fried catfish taco recipe (which is delicious baked!). When we first made this recipe, the slaw was the true star and I now make it at least bi-weekly. Great with any grilled/baked protein!
2 teaspoons chipotle chiles in adobo, finely chopped (found in the canned foods section at any grocery store)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 cup white cabbage, shredded
1 cup red cabbage, shredded
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup green onion, chopped
Spicy Buckwheat Soba Noodle Salad with Thai-Style Peanut Dressing
Buckwheat is a great source of fiber and manganese and a provides a more nutty taste than wheat pasta. The peanut dressing in this recipe is finger-licking good and I typically add twice as much carrots and cabbage! Though it might take a few ingredients you may not have typically have on hand, like red curry paste, once you make the investment you’ll be inspired to find more recipes to use them up! I love making red thai curry with kabocha squash with the extra curry paste myself!
Homemade Sauerkraut (Kapusta)
Fermented foods are powerhouses that contain beneficial probiotics, digestive enzymes, and health-boosting nutrients. I have had the honor of making Kapusta with Albert's folks before and aspire to make this tangy and healthful fermented food myself more often. Perhaps this weekend...
It's a New Year and my new teaching schedule has commenced. Over the weekend I grabbed my hoard of printed articles and training materials that I’ve collected over the years to get me back into health promotion and behavior change mode. I’ve read about this topic intensely, but my recent refresher reminded me of one of the more important factors in successful behavior change: our perceived self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is the extent or strength of one's belief in one's ability to complete tasks and reach goals. In more simple terms, confidence. The level of our perceived self-efficacy plays a central role in personal change since unless we believe that we can produce desired effects by our actions, we have little incentive to act or persevere in the face of difficulties. According to Psychologist Albert Bandura in Health Promotion by Social Cognitive Means:
The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goals people set for themselves and the firmer their commitment to them. Self-efficacy beliefs shape the outcomes people expect their efforts to produce. Those of high efficacy expect to realize favorable outcomes. Those of low efficacy expect their efforts to bring poor outcomes. Self-efficacy beliefs also determine how obstacles and impediments are viewed. People of low efficacy are easily convinced of the futility of effort in the face of difficulties. They quickly give up trying. Those of high efficacy view impediments as surmountable by improvement of self-management skills and perseverant effort.
So…the question of the day is: How can we strengthen our perceived self-efficacy?
Self-efficacy is not a genetically endowed trait. Instead, it develops over time and through experience. According to Bandura and others, self-efficacy beliefs are not static -- they are constantly informed, energized, or depleted through at least five sources:
1. Mastery Experiences – Successfully completing tasks, reaching goals, and overcoming obstacles is the most effective way of creating a strong sense of efficacy. Recall my recent post on S.M.A.R.T. goals? Setting specific, measurable, actionable realistic and timely goals and tasks can ensure our ability to experience mastery. When we experience mastery and feel confident that we have what it takes to succeed, we persevere in the face of adversity and more quickly rebound from setbacks.
2. Vicarious experiences - Seeing people similar to ourselves succeed by sustained effort raises our beliefs that we too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities required to succeed.
3. Social persuasion – When we are told by significant others, like parents and teachers, that we possess the capabilities to master given activities we are likely to mobilize greater effort and sustain it.
4. Physiological and emotional states – Our actual and perceived physiological and emotional states (like stress, fatigue, anxiety, fear, joy, anticipation) can influence our self-efficacy beliefs. Our mood can also affect our sense of personal efficacy. Positive moods enhance perceived self-efficacy, despondent moods diminish it. The ability to reduce our stress reactions and alter our negative emotional tendencies is a key way to enhance our sense of self-efficacy.
5. Imaginal experiences – Rehearsing successful or unsuccessful performances, be it deliberate or while ruminating, can affect our coping strategy and self-efficacy for the better or worse. Examples include imagination-based interventions, experiential exercises like mentally rehearsing a speech, and role playing.
Pretty interesting stuff, right? Seems like putting ourselves out there more, ensuring our goals and desired tasks are S.M.A.R.T., fostering a strong support network and practicing stress management and visualization exercises can all help us achieve a stronger perceived self-efficacy.
I also want to reflect on the key word in this whole topic: perceived. As I wrote in a prior post about self-talk, our perceptions make our reality! Like Henry Ford said, if you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you are right. It's all about that self-efficacy, baby!
New Year’s Eve is fast approaching and it’s likely that resolutions are being pondered upon. Though every moment can be an opportunity for a new start, the New Year provides us that more symbolic time to look back and reflect, celebrate and move forward with renewed intentions. We can decide which habits we’d like to let go of and new habits/goals/practices we’d like to integrate (or reintegrate).
According to a study at the University of Scranton, 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s Resolutions; however, only 8% of us are successful in achieving them. Where are we going wrong? Perhaps it’s in how we set our resolutions/goals.
Maybe you’re considering a more active lifestyle for 2015? Want to lose weight? Get your finances in order? For me, it’s practicing mediation and mindfulness. All of these goals sound great, but making them S.M.A.R.T. will ensure our success. S.M.A.R.T. stands for: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic (or relevant) and Timely. You may have heard of this mnemonic acronym in a business or project management class, but it’s also at the root of effective goal setting as it enables us create a clear map behind our goals and encourages us to address our beliefs and barriers. So let’s get to it!
Specific – A goal needs to be specific. A goal to get healthy sounds great, but it’s too general as there are so many ways to do it. Is it exercising more? Cutting back on added sugars? Managing stress? Perhaps your one goal can be broken into a few mini-goals? Make it specific by asking yourself the Five 'W'’s and How…Who, What, When, Where, Why and How? If your goal is to exercise more, for example, you’ll want to specify the type(s) of exercise, when and where you’ll be doing it and how - what tools and resources will you need to succeed? Maybe a new pair of running shoes, set of dumbbells, or fitness buddy? Lastly, why? Why do you want to achieve this goal? Is the motivation coming from within you or from outside influences? Research shows that the more we can align our goals to our internal motivations, rather than external, the more successful we will be in achieving our goal.
Measurable – It’s impossible to know whether we’re making progress towards our goals if they aren’t measurable. Measuring progress helps us stay on track and usually involves asking some How’s: How much, How many, and How we’ll know when it's accomplished. For exercise, we'll want to track our frequency, time and intensity (amount of weight, number of steps or heart rate, for example). For nutrition, perhaps you'll measure the cups of water you drink or servings of vegetables at lunch and dinner. For me, it’ll be the time and days per week spent meditating.
Actionable – An actionable goal is one with clearly defined actions/steps that we must take in order to achieve the goal. Its one where we are in control over whether or not these actions take place. In other words, it’s not a passive process like taking a pill in hopes for more energy. It requires us to be an active participant in the change process, step by step. In the case of wanting enhanced energy, perhaps a S.M.A.R.T. goal would be to get one more hour of sleep on weeknights or eat a more sustaining lunch with complex carbohydrates and protein to keep us going.
Realistic (or relevant) - It is essential to set realistic goals - otherwise we’re setting ourselves up for failure, which can diminish our motivation. A goal should require us to stretch beyond our normal routines and abilities, but allow for success based on our current skills and time available. Goals should also be meaningful and relevant to our abilities and interests. Set goals that are important to where you are in your life right now. Don’t set a goal that someone else is pressuring you to attain.
Timely - Knowing that we have a deadline can motivate us to get started and keep us focused. Experiment with short and long-term timelines, but check in regularly to monitor your progress.
Research also tells us that those of us who make resolutions are most successful when we have belief in our ability to succeed, have the skills to change, and are ready to change. As we reflect on the S.M.A.R.T. acronym, let’s all take some time to step back and think about our beliefs and our current skills. Before deciding to exercise more, do we need instruction from a trainer? Need to sign up for a cooking class before we can start making dinner 5 days a week? What support, tools and/or resources will you need in order to succeed? I know that I will need some sitting props to meditate more comfortably.
My S.M.A.R.T. resolution for 2015 is to practice intentional mindfulness in order to achieve more equanimity. Life’s been good, but I often feel controlled by impulsive thoughts, actions and emotions. There are tremendous benefits to mindfulness and meditation (more to come in future posts), one of which is an enhanced ability to expand the space between action and reaction. My S.M.A.R.T. resolution is to practice quiet sitting/meditation 2 times per week for 5-10 minutes before my 20 minute yoga routine. I’ll keep you all posted with my progress and would love to hear yours! What is your S.M.A.R.T. resolution for 2015? I’d love to hear from you!
Earlier this week I attended a speech by Dr. Robert Lustig. He’s a pediatric neuroendocronologist (studying how our metabolic hormones affect our brains), author, researcher and speaker who is spreading the word about our broken food system and all the scientific evidence that shows how eating too much added sugar is linked to diabetes, heart disease and liver disease.
I left the event excited and inspired by all I learned and impressed with his ability to transform complicated scientific and technical information into a form a general audience could relate to and understand. Concepts he was really hitting hard were the dangers of fructose and its role in fatty liver disease and cognitive decline (more on this in a later post) as well as the danger of visceral adipose fat (or the fat around our liver and abdominal organs). According to Lustig its our waist, not our weight, that matters.
It has long been recognized that our body mass index (BMI) can predict our likelihood of morbidity (illness) and mortality (death). The higher our BMI, the more at risk we are for numerous chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. However, more and more science is revealing that it’s where our fat is stored that makes the difference. This is where waist circumference comes into the picture, since the fat surrounding our liver and other abdominal organs, aka visceral abdominal fat, is very metabolically active. It releases fatty acids, inflammatory agents, and hormones that ultimately lead to higher LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood glucose, and blood pressure. Its associated with cardiovascular and metabolic disorders including insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, hypertension and several cancers.
Lustig's take home message was that being “thin” is not a safeguard against metabolic syndrome. I can be as tall and weigh the same as my best friend and therefore have the same BMI, but if I store my weight in my abdomen and she in her hips I am most at risk. So where do we go from here? Well, let’s get to know our numbers! Diagnosis of metabolic dysfunction includes measurements of cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose, blood pressure and waist circumference*. For your best health, your waist should measure no more than 102 cm (40 in) in men and 88 cm (35 in) in women. A lower waist circumference cutpoint (eg, 90 cm [35 inches] in men and 80 cm [31 inches] in women) appears to be appropriate for Asian Americans.
Look forward to more posts on this topic and changes we can make help our belts cinch a little tighter. If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Lustig’s research, here’s the link to his YouTube video that went viral a few years back. He was also interviewed in the amazing documentary that was recently released called Fed Up. And he’s in a current PBS series now called Sweet Revenge. He and his team at UCSF also created an awesome website sugarscience.org that has a resource kit and tons of user-friendly info. Spread the word!!
* To measure your waist circumference start at the top of your hip bone, then bring the tape measure all the way around, level with your belly button. Make sure it's not too tight and that it's straight. Don't hold your breath while measuring.
Hello and welcome! My name is Andrea Notch Mayzeles. I am a Certified Health Education Specialist, Mom, and Master of Public Health dedicated to the path of well-being. As a wellness professional I am committed to continued learning and am here to share research, recipes and musings on health, psychology, personal development, and parenting. I hope you enjoy!