We hear it all the time: Trust your instincts, listen to your inner voice where food and exercise are concerned. We find babies are naturally averse to foods that don’t agree with them. We’re told if we suspect a food results in an ache, a rash, a bloat, we shouldn’t eat it. Monitor your body while exercising, and if it hurts, slow down.
On the other hand, human beings are growing huge, flabby, unable to climb short flights of stairs. We’re frantic to buy the next brand of packaged food. We ache for the convenience of the microwaved meal. We can’t face a day, a morning, a meal without our soda pop. Why? Well, because we follow our instincts.
That is, we follow the biggest, baddest of our instincts, our survival instinct.
This one is the ancient, gnawing one, the one that governs over all the others. It’s the prehistoric one that tells us to eat sweet and starchy things wherever we can find them, the one whose primary objective is storing energy as fat for the inevitable future periods of flight and starvation. We follow the instincts that tell us to sit for hours on the couch, conserving the energy we’ll surely need to run from the next predator that might cross our paths. This survival instinct of ours has served us so well throughout the history of mankind.
Thing is, we’ve outgrown it.
Today we live in an environment where food is plentiful, rest pretty much assured, and predators not all that hard to avoid. So these instincts, the ones that tell us to stay in bed instead of exercising, to find any way possible to avoid physical labor, to eat the most convenient calories available, to eat calorie-dense foods rather than going to all the work of eating lots of food that is lower in calories, these instincts that are all about getting and conserving energy have turned on us. We’re so darned smart we’ve designed and built a world in which we don’t need instincts to survive. But we’re not smart enough to turn off our instincts. They run whether we need them or not, and they just keep telling us to eat and get our rest.
We can’t turn off those survival instincts, and we’re not very good at controlling the ever-wily, and rather miraculous biochemistry that governs energy storage, retrieval, and use. So what to do?
You have to use the reasoning part of your brain to outsmart your instincts. You need to recognize when it’s your prehistoric little survival creature telling you to eat more calories than you need, and to rest when what your body really needs is exercise. You need to go to the gym anyway, and put down the donut even when you think you’ll die if you don’t eat it. Now.
For a long time I tried to think of exercising when I didn’t want to as abuse, going without the food I wanted as deprivation, forgetting what real abuse looks like, how actual deprivation ravages bodies halfway around the world, but not in my house. I finally came to realize that I was programmed to eat food and rest, but not to maintain my health. If I wanted good health, I was going to have to actively think about it, spend energy working for it. I would have to do this every day, do battle with my instincts.
Of course, I spent a lot of time writing about how my instincts told me to do one thing when I knew that I should really do the other. The more I wrote about it, the more clear my choices became. Slowly, slowly, the healthier choices become, if not instinctive, then at least habitual.
So, your assignment: Write down the ways your instincts seem to overtake your best intentions to take good care of your body. When does it happen? In what circumstances? How are you feeling when it happens? What time of day? Where are you? What is it that you wind up doing? What do you think you should do instead that would be healthier for you in the long run? What you’re doing is developing a battle plan, a strategy for helping your rational, emotional, evolved mind overcome your cold little reptilian mind.
So, when I wake up in the morning, and my inner reptile thinks it’s a better form of survival to stay in bed for an extra hour, I have programmed my rational mind to kick in and tell me to get my feet on the floor and my butt out the door. When I am tempted to stand in front of the fridge and eat a whole meal before dinner, or while preparing it, my rational mind steps in and reminds me to squeeze my lips shut, wait for the meal, the moment. Even to enjoy the hunger I know will be satisfied very soon.
It’s one thing to know these instincts of yours get in the way. But writing them down and deciding what you’re going to do about these moments in advance has huge power. The act of writing helps you rewire your brain. Prepare to dominate during these moments. Do it. Get a journal, a sheet of paper, fire up your word processor, and start outsmarting yourself.