Did you get to your mat this week? Why do we avoid what’s good for us? Why when we really desire good health do we still avoid things like yoga and healthy food? Is the human condition to keep us from avoiding what’s good for us? I have spent much time meditating on why I procrastinate my yoga, walk, or healthy food choice. This has been a struggle for many of us for a very long time. It seems to me it comes directly from the reward we receive afterwards or even during the activity.
This explains why sugar keeps us coming back again and again. Our brains reward us for it because from its perspective we should be rewarded for eating so many calories. The brain knows you normally eat 2500 calories before 4pm and will help you remember to do so. The brain programs itself to reward you for eating, but doesn’t understand when those 2500 calories are McDonalds or some other empty calories. Then when the body desires certain nutrients it will ask you to eat again and when you reward it with another 1000 empty calories it rewards you again. The reward center for the brain works this way with a lot of things. Sex, alcohol and drugs are great examples of high reward behaviors. This is part of why addictions usually fall upon these behaviors and can lead to dangerous places. Sugar gets a lot of us in trouble and I get into the details of that in my article “Sugar in an Addictive substance”
Also exercise rewards some of us and some people seem to be more stimulated by that reward than they are for the alcohol or sugar reward. I was NOT one of those people. Exercise for me has been a horrendous feat. I hated it in high school and could care less about sports. I just don’t care to exercise. As a young person I was usually left to my own devices to get food, so you can image my choices were not ideal. In fact there were several years I lived on Doritos, Pepsi, and Slim Fast. As child and through most of my early adult hood I ate calorie dense nutrient defficient food and my 260lbs was a direct result. No one exercised in my house! We watched TV, most of the time. I was a child of the 80’s I never learned that exercise can reward us.
When I hike I am not driven by exercise I am driven by the adventure and inspired by nature. That is how I exercise, gyms are boring and severely lack in the reward department. Its easy for me to skip over although I have tried so many times out of pure desire for better health. At times I could keep streaks but my dirty secret is that I hate the gym. So I had to find some other reward for my exercise because it was not always a rewarding experience when you can’t breathe and your muscles hurt so bad. When I was exercising at 250 lbs I hated it with such a passion. I had no idea how I was ever going to figure out this weight loss thing. I had no interest in competition or vanity, these are not my values. I had to find the rewards for exercising and doing yoga, tough to compete with things like sugar and alcohol. I experimented with lots of rewards – buying something can lead to shopping habits, so I don’t recommend that reward system. Shopping, gambling and sex habits are just as addictive as sugar and alcohol. The addiction process lies in the addiction to those rewards. My rewards were something else… they were adventure, geocaching, and trees. This spoke to my values.
Yoga was something else for me. I found the classes, although educational, to be lacking in something. I started using some yoga cards someone had gifted me to remind me of what moves to do next. Time passed and I began to do classes enough to learn how to get in and out of poses then I simply took what I learned and brought it home to my daily practice. I could have a free class, not just financially but I could do whatever I wanted without feeling like a rebel. I didn’t feel pressure in the class to get into this or that pose. I hated thinking of people looking at me when I was 260lbs with tight clothes but feeling like a roley poley marshmallow man trying to do yoga. I wanted to listen to my own music and create my own space. I sensed something in yoga but I didn’t want that classroom effect. I began to build my own practices occasionally returning to classes to learn more. This is how I fell in love with yoga and how it came to be the main reason for my weight-loss. Yoga stretched my muscles and helped me recover from the tough workouts I was trying to do at the gym, hating every minute of it. Yoga gave me a space to be gentle with myself and a place that I could gently challenge myself at my own pace. However I was comfortable doing yoga, and that changed every day. I found an inner knowing that became what I used to decide how to move my body next.
At times, often in the winter, I would stop doing yoga for a little while and begin to notice all the crap habits I had before, return. First I would skimp on my yoga, then eat mindlessly, and more and more habits would return leaving me to wonder what happened. I was back to eating crap food, snacking on sugar, skipping my workout, and so on. We have all done this! Then I find myself with an excessively dramatic menstrual cycle or suddenly coming down with a cold or muscle pain. I feel good when I eat right, exercise and do yoga/meditation, how did I get here? Why did I stop?
I haven’t been rewarding myself properly, that’s the problem. I must find a reward for the practice. The easiest reward is, when you find a yoga routine that is good for you, to simply take a moment laying on your back in a nice relaxed manner and noticing how you feel. At the end of the practice how do you feel? Most of us feel refreshed, relaxed, and often our pain has dissipated. Our souls feel at ease and our minds are quieter. If this is not your experience at the end, try a different style of yoga or maybe Tai Chi would be better for you. When I feel that sense of complete relaxation and positive rewards I bookmark the feeling. I try to highlight it for myself. I want to remind myself just how good it feels to do my yoga routine and in this reward I can easily remember when it comes time to arrive on the mat. I can move through the procrastination bone and instead arrive on the mat with a knowing that at the end I will feel refreshed, relaxed, and rewarded.
This reward method has worked for me in a variety of ways. One thing I want to point out here though is to avoid rewarding yourself with sugar, alcohol, or drugs simply because they don’t support a good healthy holistic life. Not that you can’t have them but to exercise for 30 minutes and then reward yourself with a milkshake later is counter productive. I did it for years, this is how I know we all do it! Instead find other ways you feel rewarded that are healthier rewards. I reward myself with relaxation, adventures, music, and nature.
Many of us that grew up on McDonalds, TV, and sugar as the main ingredient find it hard to be filled with the reward system we have not experienced before. The reward for these addictive things are so high its hard for us to understand how exercise or healthy food is rewarding. It feels like a chore to many of us. Exercise, yoga, and eating healthy feels like a chore – especially when we are new at it. We have to retrain our bodies away from these controlling substances that stand to suck the life right out of us. We must use some other reward just like a drug addict must find some other way to party! Partying is a great reward I love to invite my partner to dance with me. I love to dance with others, the reward of connecting with another and moving our bodies is as addictive as sex for me. When I say dancing I mean the free expression of oneself to music that you enjoy. Everyone has rewards that align with their values but finding them can be a bit of a process. I was so deep that I first tried sugar as a reward for exercise and we know how effective that can be. Then I tried shopping only to find that it wasn’t financially sustainable. Eventually I began to celebrate the more subtle rewards like cuddling, dancing, nature, relaxation, a quiet mind, and fun adventures. Next thing I know my reward system shifts and I can simply notice that these rewards go much deeper than sugar, shopping and beer. These rewards keep on giving and provide other healthy habits. Although I still slip sometimes I notice its much less often as time goes on and the “fall off the wagon” doesn’t last as long. Also I began to bookmark my stomach aches from eating too much sugar or my hangover from too many beers. Although I will say here that when I was very large and had a huge tolerance for alcohol and sugar I did not feel the “sick” feelings. I did not experience these until I detoxed and then returned to the substance. Changing my habits has been most successful with this bookmarking effect and noticing how things effect me. This reward system will help you rewire your brain so that it WANTS to bring you to the mat and WANTS you to exercise.