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How a Book, Healthy Diet and Exercise Changed My Life Essay

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Updated: Jul 28th, 2022

I was sitting at my table, staring at the screen of my computer. Having worked for several hours, I felt like I deserved to relax a little. “Relaxing” usually implied watching videos and binge-eating until I was so exhausted, both physically and mentally, that I just got up and went to bed. In bed, after another hour of scrolling the Instagram feed, chatting with my friends or watching YouTube videos, I was finally lucky to fall asleep. This used to be my daily routine just about a year and a half ago, when I came across a book that marked a turning point in my life. I believe that huge numbers of people struggle with the problems that I used to have: “poor physical condition, bad mood and constant dissatisfaction with one’s life” (Buzza, 2017, p. 16). I also strongly believe that all this can be changed with the strategies that have helped me. It is only with hindsight I realise how much I have improved since then, all because of a book and two habits that every health expert preaches about nowadays: exercise and a healthy diet.

Before I read the book, my lifestyle was far from healthy; mostly due to the lack of interest in sports and the fact that I spent almost all my time sitting. I have never been athletic or keen on healthy lifestyles. My parents tried to make me interested in sports, and as a child I did like to be active, especially when it involved playing with my friends. Like most children, I only did it when I wanted and when somebody was there to have fun with me. I never made physical activity into a regular habit, and entered my early adulthood as a typical millennial struggling with his or her sedentary lifestyle. These tendencies put millennials at greater risk of numerous health problems, such as “obesity, digital wear and strain, autoimmune diseases, and mental health disorders” (Mayo Washington Healthcare, 2018). All this was aggravated by my occupational hazards: as a computer consultant, I spend a lot of time studying or working at my desk. I was, however, content with my life; I thought that my lifestyle choices cannot cause any negative consequences at such a young age.

It all changed in March of 2020, when the first lockdown began: before that, physical activity in my life was mostly walking with my friends, going to work or classes. When all my courses switched to distance education system, I was happy at first. The first two weeks were great, because I felt like I could finally spend my free time productively: practicing the piano, reading, playing all the videogames I had long wanted to finish. By the end of March, however, I started feeling worse, as all the activities I had involved sitting or standing for a long time. Days were similar to each other in the most unpleasant way. A study that I read afterwards reported that people who spent more than 6 hours sitting “have a 71% increase in mortality rate” (Patel et al., 2010, p. 422). I started having terrible back pains and problems with the sciatic nerve, which, in turn, resulted in headaches. Needless to say, my mood was affected, and so was my attitude to work, studying or doing the things that I used to enjoy most, such as playing the piano.

So, on April, 21, 2020, I was a sitting at my table, staring at the screen of my computer, when I came across the book that, quoting dramatic movie characters, changed my live. I had just marked one more book as “read” on my Goodreads page and was looking through the list of books on self-improvement with half-mocking interest. For some reason, they always seemed unnecessary to me, and I used to look down on everything that contained the word “self-help” in its title, description or the name of the genre. One of the books attracted my interest, however, because of the high ratings (which I fall for way too often) and an interesting description. The book was called “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, and was written by a reporter named Charles Duhigg. I started reading it the same evening, and could not put down until midnight.

The book starts with describing some real cases of people who lost everything but stuck to their habits. The habits were not always healthy, and some were presented as the root of serious addictions, such as gambling or alcoholism. However, reading about those people made me realize how strong habits can be. The book further discussed the way habit loops are formed and three elements they consist of: a cue, a routine, and a reward (Duhigg, 2014). It explains how, once the cue that triggers the action is established, the mind remembers the reward it gets for doing the routine, so the latter becomes much easier to follow. What impressed me more, however, were the stories and studies on how small and seemingly insignificant changes made people change other parts of their lives and eventually led to creating great long-lasting habits. I found out that the focus on small things can be more important and helpful than aiming at some radical changes. Thinking about it later, I realized how seeing these small mechanisms of big life changes became a great motivation for me.

With the understanding of how habits are formed and how they can influence my life, I felt relieved and more in control. I knew now that I should not be too strict to myself each time I fail to get rid of all the bad habits and get all the good ones in one day. The next morning after I had started reading the book I did not wake up earlier than usual, I did not do any morning exercise, and I had sugary cereal for breakfast. Still, I tried not to feel guilty about anything, and decided to change my lifestyle by introducing changes as seamlessly as possibly. In the evening, when my back started hurting, I got up, found a random video with a workout challenge, and tried to do it. I did not have a proper mat, so I exercised right on the carpet, which was not very comfortable. Still, I managed to do all the types of exercise from the video, although I did not repeat all of them as many times as the instructor did.

It was very difficult, but I kept thinking that I had already got the reward: the fact that I started that particular workout by itself. This thought made it much easier for me to continue with the workout, and even though I skipped some sets, I felt satisfied. After the video ended, I had a shower, read in bed, and went to sleep. The next day I woke up before the alarm went off, with a slight pain in my muscles. Still in bed, I started thinking about the cue and the reward that pushed me to do the workout. I realized that exercising was not a habit yet, so I had to establish those elements by myself.

I tried to remember the exact moment when I felt satisfied, and came to a conclusion that there were actually two “rewards”. First, the moment when I sat down on the carpet. At that moment, I felt determined to exercise, because I knew it would ease my back pain. It was like the pressure of making myself exercise finally went away, and left me with the happy anticipation of feeling better. The second time I felt happy and proud of myself was after the shower. I think it is because shower is something people do every day: it is something ordinary and is always the same. However, going to the shower after you have had a good workout is much more satisfying. At least, it was for me, so I decided that it is going to be both my cue and a reward: every time I would be going to the shower, I would first exercise for 5, 10 or 20 minutes. The time would depend on how I feel and I would never make myself do more than I want. In reality, I ended up exercising for about 20 minutes or more.

“The beginning is the hardest part”, they say; that might be true, but after some time has passed, that one decision to do a workout before the shower did not seem hard at all. I guess that is the power of habit: you turn difficult things into a routine. The next day after the workout I found it much easier to choose some healthy snacks, such as fruits or nuts, over my usual ones: chips and sweets. I think that single workout made me realize how easy it is to achieve your goals, because each time I did something small, but positive, I felt like I was growing as a person.

Daily workouts made me more aware of what my body can and cannot do, so I wanted to become aware of what I eat as well. Since I started working on my physical fitness, I realized it would just make no sense to exercise and continue eating what I usually eat. Given the fact that I did not even know what most of the things I used to eat were made from, that was a huge change, which I could not and did not make right away. The next evening after my first workout I decided to cook something “healthy”, not exactly imagining what it could be. I felt like I needed to add more unprocessed foods in my diet, but the thought of having to decide what to cook, googling the recipe, choosing the best one… I already felt discouraged, as I am not a big fan of cooking.

Nevertheless, I chose to follow the same strategy I followed for my exercise routine: doing as little as I need to not feel pressured, but comfortable and in control. I went to the supermarket and tried to look for the foods that I was really craving. I had a snack before that, in order not to be too hungry and end up getting a takeaway from some fast-food restaurant, as I usually did. In the supermarket, I went right to the produce section. Looking at the crates with fruits and vegetables, I thought that I was very lucky to be able to buy and eat these natural sources of all the vitamins and nutrients my body needs. I came home carrying a heavy bag of fruits, vegetables, cheese, and some nuts. Although I tried to be moderate in my choices, when I came home and took the groceries out of the bag, it seemed like for the first time in a long while, I had a wide variety of food in my fridge. I cooked a nice salad and ate it with wholemeal bread.

Reading the book, I was introducing the habits of regular exercise and a healthy diet into my life. By the end of April, after a week of exercising and cooking for myself every day, I noticed that I was looking forward to each time I did a workout or had a meal to cook. Evening became the best part of my day, because it was the time when I cooked something nice and healthy, did a workout of my choice and rewarded myself with reading or watching something. No matter how good or bad my day was, if I was productive or spent several hours doing nothing, I exercised every evening. I began planning my workouts, looking for exercise that only focused on different groups of muscles. I cannot say I never felt lazy or too tired to exercise, but each time I reminded myself of my two-layer reward.

Putting everything aside and doing some low-impact exercise had a great effect on me, so did the process of cooking something healthy. I learned to appreciate my own body; it also gave my mind a rest: from work or from feeling guilty for doing nothing, it always made me feel better. Today, after more than 14 months have passed, I still stick to my habits. I have noticed the positive effect of these habits on my mental state, emotional stability, self-discipline skills, general mood and the ability to concentrate. Since then, I have read works on the connection between mental health and regular exercise, which supported the positive influence that I have already experienced (Mikkelsen et al., 2017). This newly acquired knowledge provided me with additional motivation.

Thus, I managed to spend the difficult period of the lockdown productively and am really proud of that. The Power of Habit helped me to finally find the way to get used to something that is good for me, and that actually turned out to be enjoyable. I still exercise every evening, since it is the most convenient time for me. I eat healthily, although allowing myself a chocolate bar or other unhealthy snacks from time to time. The achievement that I consider to be the biggest one is my willingness to continue with regular exercise and a healthy diet even if I eat something unhealthy or skip a workout. In other words, I do not judge myself for anything, and it is my best motivation.

References

Buzza, J. S. (2017). Journal of Human Resources Management and Labor Studies, 5(2) 15-20. Web.

Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Anchor Canada.

Mary Washington Healthcare. (2018). Millenials at greater risk for disease. Web.

Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56. Web.

Patel, A. V., Bernstein, L., Deka, A., Feigelson, H. S., Campbell, P. T., Gapstur, S. M., Colditz, G. A., & Thun, M. J. (2010). American Journal of Epidemiology, 172(4), 419-429. Web.

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