While training one of my clients the other day, I wanted to find out how he was progressing on his own. We meet once a week for training with the understanding he will work out 1-2 more times on his own and perform 2-4 sessions of cardiovascular activity, like running or the elliptical trainer. I wanted to find out about his diet and preparing his meals in bulk.
Without blame or accusation I open a conversation with a client by asking general questions to find out how they’re doing, to see what patterns may emerge over time through conversation.
He said he wasn’t eating as well this week because he was attending TIFF, The Toronto International Film Festival, and he couldn’t quite bring his meals with him into the theatres. He made decent choices at restaurants and things were going well. His clothes were all fitting more loosely; one of his shirts, which he couldn’t quite button up last year, now fits perfectly.
Working with a client only once per week makes it more difficult for me to find one thing that may be holding him back, or one gem of an idea that may allow him to make positive changes faster. I know he sometimes has good weeks and bad weeks and it’s not that he’s indifferent to improving his health. He’s just as human as you or I and it can be very difficult to change old habits or stop doing the things which make us feel good, but are unhealthy or don’t take us towards our fitness goals.
I suggested he needed to consider a long-term view to better stay on track. He said his weight loss is definitely a result of working out because before he started working with me he wasn’t performing any physical activity. He has seen and felt improvement with changes to how he eats, but staying consistent has proven challenging.
It occurred to me it’s the short-term pleasures that cause most harm. Short-term pleasures feel immediately good. For example, ice cream tastes delicious, but how many of us can eat just a spoonful? I know I can’t. I eat an entire bowl at a sitting. Ice cream is an ephemeral pleasure, but if we enjoy this pleasure too often we’ll gain unwanted weight.
Note: With each taste of ice cream, the experience is so intense, yet fleeting; it’s hard NOT to have another taste. You need another spoonful to prolong the creamy-rich sweetness. One more spoonful. Oh, what the hell, another small bowl won’t hurt me. Like an addiction, the flavour on the taste buds is so overwhelming the brain wants the experience of pleasure to continue. Martin Seligman describes this as the ‘vicious cycle of craving’ in his book, Authentic Happiness. “The emotional pleasure of ice cream is too intense to savour. Rather, it’s a “rapidly repeated indulgence in the same pleasure which does not work.” (105) The problem rests with how the neurons in our brain respond to a stimulus like ice cream. The first taste is always the most intense, the second taste half as good and every other taste thereafter is simply waist-widening.
By contrast, long-term pleasures can be harder to recognize. For example, if you shop for a week’s worth of groceries and cook a week of meals in advance you’ll have food to eat at work and reheat for dinner. This saves a tremendous amount of time, but more importantly you’ll have meals prepared so you don’t have to eat out or purchase something that’s not healthy because you’re over-hungry: If you plan ahead and know what you’re going to eat, and if you plan to eat five healthy meals or snacks per day, you will be planning for the long-term. The results will allow for better control of your weight and body fat, eating healthier food and having more spare time.
At the end of a day of eating well, you may experience contentedness. At the end of a healthy meal, when you feel satisfied (not full and bloated); when you feel positive about your healthy food choices, you are experiencing gratification; you have enacted your personal strengths and virtues to stay true to your diet. You may savour the moment, which, according to Seligman, “is the awareness of pleasure and the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure.” (107) In this case, the pleasure of eating healthy and feeling no guilt or discomfort at the end of your meal.
Preparing and cooking meals for a week doesn’t feel as good as a delicious bowl of ice cream ‘in the moment.’ Meal preparation is delayed gratification. These many small actions over time do, in fact, feel good, but to a very small extent. However, these actions done repeatedly over a longer period of time create a much greater and sustainable, positive effect. These actions have a very low or little ‘feel-good’ component in the moment. If you prepare meals consistently for several weeks you’ll start to feel better. You’ll see improvements in the mirror, your clothes will fit better, people may complement you on your weight-loss, and not to mention a host of other possible benefits.
There is a secondary, long-term benefit to this delayed gratification. If you keep on doing these little long-term good-for-you things (which have minimal ‘feel-good’ effects), like preparing meals in advance, you can effectively change your state for the better. For example, now when you eat ice cream or when you go off of your diet or when you don’t work out, you don’t feel good! It’s not that the ice cream doesn’t taste good, but because you took a long-term view to improving your health, the end result is an improvement in your state of mind, not just your body. Thus, straying from your diet becomes something you no longer want to do.
In closing, there are ephemeral pleasures, which are good for you. Making love is one of those things; laughter another. Knowing the difference between short-term pleasures, which help us or harm us, is the key to happiness and health. Laugh as much as you can. Oh, and enjoy a lot of that other thing I mentioned, too.
© 2012 Darren Stehle. All Rights Reserved.