Total Therapy Blog
What it Means for the Rest of Us
Last Sunday’s star-studded extravaganza marked the close of the 30th Summer Olympics in London. For two weeks, Canadians watched with baited breath as our athletes pitted themselves against the very best competition in the world. We witnessed countless feats of athleticism – the sort that inspires the celebration of movement, strength, and poise. For the average Canadian watching, it is a reminder of what the human body is capable of, and a call to action to live up to our own personal version of higher, faster, stronger.
It’s no secret that we’ve become a society of spectators – watching, rather than participating in activity. We obsess over professional sports and elite athletic achievements while neglecting our own. You may not aspire to the blinding speed of Usain Bolt, or the fancy footwork of Christine Sinclair, but you can create your own athletic achievements. It may be as simple as setting aside time each evening to go for short walk after dinner, or as ambitious as training for your first half-marathon. Now is the time – before school starts, before the regular fall schedule of work returns – to establish the good habits that will see you through to next summer.
Creating a new habit is one of the most effective ways to create positive change. Habits automate actions – they are the brain’s way of simplifying complex processes by removing a decision-making element. A great example is driving. There’s a lot of information to be absorbed when you drive, so the brain simplifies certain processes by bundling them all together. If you decide to make a lane change, it’s a habit to flick on your turn signal, check your blindspot, and then ease the car over. You don’t really have to think about each individual action – it all just flows together.
The brain can create shortcuts with even more complicated processes by associating certain events with specific actions. Just like with Pavlov’s dogs, if you consistently perform an action in response to a particular event, the brain begins to recognize that sequence and anticipates the outcome each time that event occurs. For example, the morning ritual of waking up and making coffee – the event of waking is associated with the act – making coffee. To not follow that sequence makes us feel out-of-sorts, as anyone whose had their coffeemaker break on them knows. The trick to positive change is to leverage the brain’s love of shortcuts to your advantage; or, to make a habit.
To make physical activity a habit, there are two things to keep in mind: 1. Be consistent; 2. Repetition, repetition, repetition. The most successful changes piggyback on existing routines. For example, going for a walk (new activity) during lunch hour (regular event) can be an effective way of creating a healthy habit. Similarly, waking up a half-hour early and going to a morning fitness class is a habit-creating formula. Another twist would be establishing a regular play time with the kids – have lunch, go to the park. In the fall, routines centred around school schedules can also be effective habit-formers – walking to/from school as a family, for example. By establishing a new action that is linked to a predictable routine, you automate activity – meaning there’s one less decision to make.
Repetition also matters. It takes an estimated 3-4 weeks to establish a new habit. This means that it’s important to choose a routine that you know you can stick with long-term. It’s also important to be honest about your limitations – including the physical ones. Exercise should never cause injury, so if your new habit is causing hurt, it’s important to seek help from your healthcare team early. Your physiotherapist, chiropractor, or physician can provide guidance to help you tweak your routine before you tweak something else – like your back or knees.
The Summer Olympics may be over for another four years, but its spirit – the celebration of movement in all its forms – endures. This month, keep the celebration going with some new movement of your own.