Monday, May 7, 2012

Guest Trainer blog post- Habits

Below is a guest post from a co-worker who is really smart and I think everyone will enjoy his post .

Habits. What they are and how they form. 
By: Thompson Maesaka
Habits can be our best friend and our worst enemy. Getting into good habits early is the best way to make any fitness goal incredibly easy. When you make unconscious decisions that have a positive impact on your health, over time your improvement is inevitable. But what happens when you miss the boat on a few good habits, which turn into a few more, and 5 years down the road all of the fast food and wine you thought “wasn’t that bad” has settled in your midsection? Then it’s time for a change. But change isn’t always as easy as people think. The longer we engrain a specific sequence of neural firing (ie. habits) the harder it is to reprogram a new sequence that elicits a healthy behavior. Here’s a brief description of how habits form, and ways to trick your brain into making better decisions.

You have 2 primary systems that work to form your habits. One is fast, sub conscious, and emotionally driven. The other is slow, rationale, and takes into account your long term goals and aspirations. The first, let’s call it the quick fix system, is largely dictated by the firing rate of a set of neurons associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine lets your brain know something is rewarding. The processed foods prevalent in our culture’s diet by definition are extremely addictive, in a sense that they condition a large release of dopamine despite having next to no nutritional value. These neurons also communicate subconsciously with the memory centers to estimate how rewarding things in your environment are. When you see your favorite food, you get a sensation that tells you “I want that”. This is because your memory center is telling your dopamine neurons to fire rapidly, indicating a historically rewarding experience associated with that food. Consequently, looking at a bowl of broccoli generally does the opposite, because this system is not interested in the long term benefit of broccoli. The quick fix system is only interested in how much dopamine things in your environment could potentially give you right now. As you can imagine, this is a problem for individuals attempting to “diet.” The quick fix system recognizes a food, tells your dopamine neurons it has always been rewarding (releases a lot of dopamine) and tells you to eat it. Now. Right now.  If you’ve ever caved on a diet, you’re familiar with the voice of reason that comes in and makes you feel like a total failure. Cue the self regulating system.

The self regulating system is the other part of the puzzle. This mature, refined brain center is responsible for making sure your decisions are based on what you wish to accomplish in the long run. It’s located in the region of the brain associated with “higher processing”, so it takes longer for some signals to reach it. Many times, the quick fix system sends such strong signals to a dopamine deprived brain, the subconscious automatic response that is emotionally driven takes place before this system gets a chance to process the input. So when it all boils down, sometimes the fight is rigged in the first system’s favor. However, there is hope. Below are ways to “habit proof” your environment and tips to even out your neurochemistry so the quick fix system doesn’t dominate decision making.

1. Write down a goal and put it on every single item you have trouble resisting. This will automatically call out the self regulating system, allowing it to catch up to the decision at hand. This will at least give your brain a balanced opportunity to make a rational decision by allowing the slower to activate region to turn on before a bad choice is acted on.

2. On the same piece of paper, make a list of healthier alternatives. Adding opportunity is a great way to decrease input from the dopamine neurons, and a great way to call upon the self regulating center. If the brain perceives more opportunity, there is less drive for immediate gratification. Take the airport for example. The reason convenience stores exist is because there is literally nothing to do while waiting for a flight. Adding shops full of mindless entertainment is a great way to make money because the lack of potentially rewarding stimuli creates a stronger drive for something rewarding. Bottom line: If your brain is dopamine deficient, pretty much anything will do.

3. Plan ahead for risky situations. If you’re on a diet and you’re nervous the office birthday celebration will create unwanted pressure to indulge, bring a healthy snack. The more perceived control you possess, the less your dopamine neurons will fire. This explains why times of stress are typically when bad habits come back. The increase in neural tone from the dopamine neurons is telling you to do something very rewarding to alleviate some of the stress. Normal things you have typically been capable of resisting seem that much more appealing, and the likelihood you relapse is increased.

4. Put a picture of something you desire or a goal you wish to achieve next to every item on your grocery list. You should begin to see a pattern. The more you consciously put external cues that quickly bring the self regulating system into play, the more neurochemically balanced your brain will become, eliciting better decision making over time. Having a reminder of what you’re shopping for will help shape healthier food choices, and allow you to think things through as opposed to making irrational, emotionally driven decisions.

5. Practice mindfulness to strengthen a set of neurons responsible for objective processing. Mindfulness is best described as “moment to moment non judgmental awareness.” This requires substantial input from a set of neurons called “ms neurons.” If your consistently exercise this part of the brain (meditation is the easiest way to do so), making rational decisions will be easier because these neurons activate faster. The faster and more efficient the firing sequence becomes, the more objective your ability to make decisions will become.

That’s a few, there are many more. It’s a lot of info but if applied is extremely effective in helping shape and reform human behavior on a subconscious level.

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