The Seven Questions: A Journey to Sustainable Fitness, Part 2

Taking Action - Fast or Slow

Taking Action – When the Rubber Hits the Road
Image: Microsoft Images

The first two questions, which can be found in Part 1, focused on the “why” – whether you’re ready to change your habits, and if so, what your motivations for change are.  There’s a saying: With a strong enough “why,” the “what” and “how” make themselves clear.  These next three questions will focus on exactly that: the what and how to achieve sustainable fitness.

Questions 3 & 4: The Past Leaves Clues

Question #3: Which of your habits do you think have contributed to your current condition?

Review where you’ve been to look for ways to improve going forward.  Think about a time in your life when you were in better physical condition or health, even if it was a few decades ago.  What were your habits then?  Did you eat better?  Were you more active?  Did you sit less?

I’m not implying that you need to become the person you were many years ago.  But tracking your life from that point will reveal the progression of habit changes that led you to your current circumstances.

Of the less-than-ideal habits that have become your routine over the years, which are modifiable? For example, you can always eat more fruits and veggies again, but if you have osteoarthritis, certain physical activities may be off the table (but not all of them!).  To figure out the causes of habit changes, you can draw a timeline of your health or weight and make inflection points where your body changed significantly – was it when you started a new job?  Graduated from college?  Got into a new relationship?  Then think about how your habits changed as a result of that inflection point.  Write down all of the factors you can think of. The more ideas you have, the more opportunities you have to make improvements…and get results.  Questions #4 and #5 will build off this list.

Question #4: Have you successfully changed your non-ideal habits in the past? If so, how? 

The list you created from Question #3 is full of insights into the challenges you’re facing when trying to make positive changes to your eating or physical activity habits.  Now, how can you best tackle those challenges?

Previous successes are a great place to look for ways to improve your current situation. If you’ve been successful with working through challenges in the past, walk yourself through how you did it – even if those challenges weren’t related to nutrition or exercise.  Are you a planner? Do you make it a point to avoid temptations?  Do you take it one small step at a time? Do you reach out to experts for guidance?

If you’ve been successful with a diet or fitness plan before, think about what aspects of the plan were not only successful, but also felt sustainable.  What strategies did you create to stick to the plan, even if only for a few weeks or months?  Which of those ideas and techniques can you use this time around?

Remember also which aspects of previous plans were not sustainable. Those are strategies you may want to avoid in the future. Are there any extremes you now know to avoid, or any “happy mediums” that you can pull from your experiences?  For example, did a previous diet require eating no grains, ever?  So you went from eating four servings of grain a day to eating zero…and then eventually realized that maybe you’d like to eat a piece of bread or pasta again at some point in your life? A happy medium could be two servings per day – not none at all, but not too much.  That’s an improvement on your current habit, but it’s more sustainable than your previous attempts. List any and all ideas that come to mind.  We’ll sort out the ideas with Question #5.

 Question 5: Putting It All Together

With the previous two questions, you’ve assessed what factors brought you to your current health or fitness situation, as well as what personal strengths and previous experiences you can use to overcome them.  Now it’s time to take your potential solutions and hold them up against your current comfort zone. This is where the tires hit the pavement and progress begins.

Question #5: Considering your current circumstances, what is one action you can take to get closer to your goal? What steps will you take to make that action possible?

Human behavior research shows that we’re really only good at changing one major habit at a time.  Maybe two if you have a lot of time, motivation and accountability.  But as you increase the number of changes you make, the odds of any of them sticking shrink very close to zero.  And that’s why lots of the good ideas you had during previous diets or fitness plans didn’t stay around…they were probably linked with a lot of other extreme or restrictive requirements.  So rather than ditching just the unrealistic stuff, you may have ditched all of it.  The baby and the bath water.

So instead of throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks, take a look at your current habits, preferences and lifestyle to figure out what is most likely to stick –  and go for one educated throw at a time.  Each throw represents a particular action that’s an improvement in your eating or physical activity habits, such as exercising one more day per week, eating four more servings of veggies per week, drinking one more glass of water every day, walking an extra 1,000 steps per day, etc.  If it works, great!  If not, then you have lots of other ideas to try from all of your brainstorming these past few days…try one or two at a time until you find the ones that work for you.

For more ideas on getting started, check out the Resources page or pick up a copy of Death of the Diet. It focuses on the eight most common habit changes that have been shown to get results and provides pages of tips for taking action on each one.

If you’re ever not sure about whether a particular habit change will work for you, imagine yourself performing it – actually picture it in your mind.  Then ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how sustainable does this change feel to me; how likely is it that I can make that part of my regular routine?”  If it’s not a 9 or 10, what would have to happen for you to get closer to a 9 or 10?  If you can’t raise that feeling up to at least a 7, then consider a different action.

Once you’ve chosen a habit to change, write down all of the practical steps you’ll have to take to support the change.  For example, if you’re going to go running one more day per week, how will you make sure that happens?  What day will it be?  When will it be, morning before work or evening?  Will you have to go to bed earlier the night before so you feel rested?  Will you have to move the alarm away from your bed to make sure you get up?  Will you go to bed wearing your running clothes so all you have to do is wake up and put on your sneakers?  Do you need to leave work earlier – and will that mean getting certain tasks done earlier in the workday?  Do you need to bring your sneakers and running clothes with you to work?   The more you plan ahead and write down the exact details of what you’ll do to make your new action possible, the easier and more likely it’ll be that action will happen. Death of the Diet also has a hefty section on creating effective plans to take consistent action.

So after brainstorming on today’s questions, you’ll have a particular habit you’re going to change to get you closer to your goals, and a set of steps to describe how you’ll take action on a regular basis.  Part 3 will explore ways you can make sustainable fitness changes even easier…and what to do if you run into bumps along the way.

The Seven Questions: A Journey to Sustainable Fitness, Part 1

Where do you want to, tomorrow?

Where do you want to go…today, tomorrow?
Photo: ntwowe and

I’m excited to share The Seven Questions.  I ask these questions to uncover clients’ true motivations for change and create a realistic action plan to achieve sustainable health and fitness – and I hope they can do the same for you!  The questions will be released over the next couple months.  If you’re interested in receiving an email notifying you when the next one is posted, join the Death of the Diet newsletter.

Here are the first two questions to get you started on the path to permanent health and fitness results. Don’t water down your thoughts – be as honest as possible.  Try to keep your answers to these, and all of the other questions, on the same page or notepad, because each question will build on previous ones.  Ok, enough chit-chat – let’s get to it:

Question #1: How do you feel about your body or health right now? Do you want to improve it?

It may sound too simple, but one of the most important things to consider is whether you really want to change your current situation.  The body you have now comes from the habits you have now, and usually your current habits are dictated by your current schedule, preferences and priorities.  It’s also called the status quo, comfort zone or path of least resistance.

Getting out of your comfort zone will require effort. But if you’re motivated enough to change, you’ll put in the effort.  Most people can’t reason themselves into being motivated, though – motivation usually comes from feeling, not from logic. For example, we know eating broccoli is healthier, but that cookie still looks better…especially if you’re stressed.  Being told by the doctor that you need to lose weight or seeing a loved one become sick from obesity may be a kick in the pants to change, but ultimately knowing doesn’t always translate into doing.

So in response to today’s question, don’t just think about what’s causing your current situation (i.e. work demands, lifestyle demands, emotional demands), but think about how you feel about your current condition. Use as many descriptive words as possible and be honest: do you feel sad, mad, embarrassed, guilty or helpless?  Go beyond the logical – your desire for change is what will have to be strong enough to see you through the process of changing – even when the going gets tough.

Finally, write down why you feel that way.  What’s causing that emotion?  The more you can make those feelings concrete, on paper or in type, the more you can understand what’s causing them, and whether you want to make changes to fight them.  If your feelings about change are not significant, then this may not be the right time for you to change.  The next question will get into more details, but for now, get those feelings about your current situation (and potentially it’s contributing factors) out and on the table.

Question #2: Seeking success?  See it first.  What about your life would be different or improved if you had healthier habits?

Whatever makes the effort of changing worth it for you – that’s your motivation to change. Looking great in a dress or suit, feeling energetic when playing with your kids, being able to compete better or having more self-confidence are just a few common ones.  And remember – if you want to make big changes, you need big motivation.

You can’t aim without a target.  Use this question to create your target. The better you can define how your life will be different, what actions you’ll be doing differently and how you’ll feel as the “new and improved” you, the more you can aim your decisions towards achieving those goals.  It orients you to get from Point A (where you are now) to Point B (where you want to be). I wrote a blog post on defining your motivations to change, called What’s Your Why. Give it a look-see.

If you have trouble coming up with your own motivations, you can always use peer support by publicizing your intention to change, and the steps you’re taking, on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Financial motivation is another handy way to get started – write a sizable check to an organization you hate, and send it if you don’t meet your goals…a la

*Note: External motivations like the financial trick can get you started, but they only last a while; eventually you’ll need a self-driven motivation to keep you going.  Getting healthy takes some time.  Staying healthy takes a lifetime.

In the next installment of The Seven Questions, you’ll create a personalized list of which steps or actions you can take to get started towards achieving your vision of a healthier, happier you.

What’s Your Why?

What's Your Why?

Photo courtesy of: Castillo Dominici and

The New Year is rapidly approaching. Reflections on the year passed, looking forward to new beginnings and a big shiny ball falling from the sky. While discussions about New Years’ Resolutions are overplayed, the underlying drive that creates them, year after year, remains of great interest to me. Everyone knows that a resolution made on New Years’ technically has no greater chance of sticking than one made on May 27th, but for some reason our minds like neat definitions when starting change – 1st of the year, beginning of the month, on Monday.

I dare say starting major habit changes on these “convenient days” lower your chances of sticking with them. If you attempt to make positive changes at the same times over-and-over, without success, your mind could subconsciously be pre-disposed to the routine of: set intention to change on Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Set intention for the following Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Your brain gets good at executing routines…including bad ones.

Even more insidious in this routine is the lost reason of WHY you’re making the change to begin with. Why do you want to lose weight, get more toned, healthier or stronger? Why are you trying to eat better or be more active? Is it because the calendar says Monday, or January 1st? That doesn’t seem like a very compelling reason to maintain your habits beyond Monday, or January 1st!

Why Change?

I devote an entire chapter in Death of the Diet (get the first two chapters free here) to answering this question. Distilled from that chapter and other areas of the book, I pose to you the following three questions and activity to reflect upon and answer this holiday season. If these questions lead you to start making changes, do me one favor. Start them the day you feel ready to change, regardless of the day of the week or the date on the calendar.

Question 1: Are you satisfied with your current health, fitness or weight?

If yes, then keep doing what you’re doing and no need to continue reading. If no, answer question #2.

Question 2: Why Change?

Your current results (health, fitness, weight, etc.) are the result of your current habits. To change your results, you need to change your habits. However, habits are there for a reason – they are the path of least resistance based on the circumstances in your life right now. You may have had other priorities in the past, but right now this is what you’re starting with. Use the activity below to determine why you would be willing to put in the effort to change those habits:

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in six to twelve months. On a piece of paper write down one to three weight, fitness or health results that you want to accomplish based on making positive changes to your eating and/or physical activity habits. Some common results include losing weight, being more toned or having more energy – but of course, what matters here is what’s important to you. Then, rank how motivating each of them is to you on a scale of zero (no motivation to change) to ten (the largest motivating factor in my life, above all other commitments).

Now look at each result again and ask yourself: “Why do I want to achieve these changes? How will achieving this allow me to live a better life or do things I’m currently not able to do?” Dig deep…usually your initial desires have deeper reasons. Weight loss, strength, energy, toning are means to an end – what’s your end? What are you going to use this new-found slimmer weight, stronger body, greater energy for? That’s your Why.

Physical health is only one aspect of wellness. Consider how making improvements can improve other aspects of your life and wellness (based on Anspaugh’s Seven Dimensions of Wellness): social (relationships), emotional (feeling about self/others), occupational (work/career), intellectual (improving knowledge/skills), spiritual (morals/values) and environmental (sustainability/impact on nature).

If you find a deeper Why than the result you initially listed, draw an arrow at the end of the original reason and write down the new one. Rate the motivation gained from this new reason. It will likely be higher than the original reason. Repeat this process for all of your desired health, fitness or weight results so each one has tangible life improvements associated with it. These are your true Whys. You can use the space provided below or if you used a piece of paper, write them next to the original Whys.

If I initially decided I wanted to lose 30 pounds, here are two examples of potential deeper Whys:

  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I no longer want to get winded doing everyday activities like going up stairs and walking a few blocks. (Motivation: 7)
  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I want to look great in all of my old clothes that no longer fit (a particular dress or pants size?) (Motivation: 6) –> I want to feel confident in myself and my body. (Motivation: 8)

Write down your Whys on a few index cards and put them in places where you can see them often (at work, in your wallet/purse, at home, etc.).

Question #3: What is one action I can take today or this week to get me one step closer to my Whys?

Once you know where you want to go and why, the next step is determining how you’re going to get there. There are many paths to living healthier, much like there are many ways to get from New York to San Francisco (different roads, airplane, train, etc.). The key is determining which path works best for your needs, preferences, priorities and schedule and then taking consistent action to travel along that path.

Changing your habits can be generalized into three main “buckets”:

Physical Activity: Working out, playing sports, taking the stairs more often, gardening, going for more walks, dancing, hiking, etc.

Eating Habits: Eating more fruits and veggies, drinking more water, eating smaller portions, less alcohol, etc.

Lifestyle Habits: Getting more sleep, reducing stress levels, quit smoking, making more time for physical activity and eating habits (your schedule), get regular medical/dental checkups, etc.

The key to making successful, lasting change is choosing new actions that are as easy as possible for you to do on a regular basis and work on just that action for a few weeks until it kicks out the old habit. Research shows it usually takes at least three weeks of consistent action to form a new habit.

Getting from where you are to where you want to be is rarely a straight shot to the top; it’s more like two steps forward and one step back. Which is still one step forward. There will be mistakes made, lessons learned, obstacles, frustrations and most of all, progress. Give yourself credit for your successes while taking responsibilities for the mishaps. Which can be summarized by a quote I strive to live my life by: There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback™.

TELL US: What’s your Why?  and get support from 75+ daily readers at Death of the Diet!

Is Saturated Fat Healthy? A Conversation Between Me and My Mom

Are Saturated Fats Like Coconut Oil Friend or Foe?

Are Saturated Fats Like Coconut Oil Friend or Foe?
Courtesy of Microsoft Images

Quick Note Before the Blog Post:

In my desire to keep you and those you care about feeling fit and strong throughout the holiday season, I want to share Death of the Diet at a deeply discounted price (feel free to forward the link). The Kindle version of Death of the Diet will be half price ($4.99) for a limited time on the days leading up to Thanksgiving – now through Wednesday Nov. 27th.  On Turkey Day, it goes back to full price.

Happy and healthy holidays to all!  – Jason

And now to the topic at hand…

About a month ago my mom emailed me asking about whether fat in the diet, particularly saturated fat, is healthy.  Her interest was piqued due to her recent visits to an Ayurvedic physician and an article by Adam Bornstein for  Below is my conversation with her about the question “Is saturated fat healthy?” – I’m interested to hear everyone’s thoughts:

From My Mom – Quoting Bornstein’s article:

7. Eat saturated fat.

Books like The China Study and movies like Forks Over Knives have pointed the finger at saturated fats-and all animal fats-as the reason for countless health problems. Yet all the research used to support this hypothesis took a very slanted bias and completely ignored populations that were incredibly healthy despite diets based on saturated fats. For example, people who live in Tokelau (a territory off of New Zealand) eat a diet that is 50 percent saturated fats, and they have cardiovascular health that is superior to any other group of people. Even Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, has publicly stated (after a 20-year review of research) that fats-and more specifically saturated fats-are not the cause of the obesity crisis and are not the cause of heart disease.

The fad-free truth: Cholesterol actually acts as an antioxidant against dangerous free radicals within the blood. When there are high levels of undesirable substances in the blood (caused by inflammation in your arteries from eating highly processed foods and large quantities of sugars), cholesterol levels rise in order to combat these substances. Cholesterol is also necessary for the production of a number of hormones, some of which help fight against heart disease. Plus, research shows diets higher in saturated fats are often lower in total calories consumed.

*Note from Jason: The link to the full Willett article is here.  Also, Dr. Mozaffarian adds a good summary in the May 2011 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – Volume 111, Number 5.  And a recent article came out in the LA Times about the topic.

My Initial Response:

I think it’s clever and slightly deceptive. It’s easy to prove a point when you only cite the research that supports it.  Many of those cultures that eat a lot of saturated fat probably consume them as a part of whole foods, not as pastries. They are also probably physically active, and not obese. Correlation does not imply causation on either side of the coin.

Most research shows that saturated fat (coconut oil, ghee, eggs, whole dairy, etc) increases both types of cholesterol, HDL & LDL.  However, recent research has started to question whether all LDL cholesterol is “bad” – certain types of LDL particles may be less harmful than others (fluffy is better), but the diagnostic tools are still not widely used.  A 2008 article by Johns Hopkins describes the situation and lists a few of the LDL particle blood tests available on the market such as NMR LipoProfile, VAP (Vertical Auto Profile), Berkeley LipoPrint.

Research over the past 15 years has started to absolve cholesterol intake as a cause of high cholesterol (they are still cautious with it when you already have high cholesterol) and it appears similar is occurring for saturated fat.  In my own research to answer this question, I came across an interesting 1962 Swiss Alpine population study that showed high calorie and high saturated fat intake did not cause high cholesterol – likely due to their high physical activity rates.

In short, consuming saturated fat in natural, whole food based form as a part of a balanced, healthful diet rich in fruits, veggies, grains/proteins coupled with a normal body weight and active lifestyle is likely fine.  Too bad some people who read Bornstein’s article only see “butter and bacon is good for me along with my pancakes and danish.”

My Mom’s Follow Up

I was speaking of whole milk/dairy products, olive oil & ghee. Her belief, from an ayurvedic perspective, is that fats in whole foods are needed to get nutrients through the cell wall. The desire to have a donut is totally my idea!

My Second Follow Up

May be true, but if whole milk, olive oil and ghee leads to excessive calorie intake and makes someone obese, then that doesn’t help either.  Also, if it doesn’t sit well in someone’s stomach (food sensitivity) that may be a sign too.

Not sure if there are studies that prove that you need fat to “get nutrients through the cell wall”, but there are a number of fat-soluble nutrients that must be consumed with fat, such as vitamins A, D, E, K, etc.  That’s why extremely low-fat diets can be risky, just like extremely low-anything diets.

To You, the Reader:

What Are Your Thoughts on Saturated Fat, LDL/Cholesterol Levels and Heart Health?

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